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On Sacrifice

What comes to mind when you think of sacrifice? Might it be a story like this?

A young wife put aside her own plans to obtain a college education to work as a bank teller in order that her ambitious husband could pursue his desire to ultimately earn a doctorate and establish the career he envisioned for himself. Years were invested in bearing and raising children, keeping house and tending to the many needs of her family. As those demands subsided near middle age, she began her own studies at night while continuing to work fulltime to help finance the college educations of her children.

Most of us would describe this as sacrifice and probably know similar stories, stories of sacrificed or delayed dreams. Sacrifices prompted by love or duty or faith. Regardless, they involve the sacrifice of self, an undeniable demonstration of selflessness.

People like this who make sacrifices are not exhorted by others to act as they do. It’s unlikely that they go through an extended decision process or give much consideration to their own well-being. Their acts are much more reflexive and probably the natural consequences of many influences: unflinching faith; the example of others; strength of character. The point is that their urges to act are intrinsic.

What does this have to do with fund raising? It has to do with giving of ourselves to benefit others, selflessness versus selfishness. It has to do with the distinction between genuine sacrifice and giving of our financial resources. It has to do with perspective. How do you relate sacrifice to fund raising?

For several years I held a conceit which I have now discarded. It is the idea of "sacrificial giving." I’m not sure of the origin of this concept in modern fund raising. It may well have arisen as a religious peremptory.

I blanch recalling the number of times I have appealed to board members, volunteers and donors to make a sacrificial gift, a gift that would require some change in consumptive habits. In hindsight my arrogance and lack of insight are appalling. Perhaps you, too, have received or given the same message: give until it hurts. Now there’s a compelling vision!

Why do I attribute arrogance to such a statement? Arrogance means the assertion of unwarrantable claims. How do you feel when someone presumes to tell you what you should do? I usually think to myself, "What makes them think they have the right?" I have not given them permission to make a claim. Automatically, I am defensive and unyielding. Such a response indicates there is no foundation of friendship, of trust, of obligation. It means they don’t know me — my interests, values, situation, concerns. Instead of being persuaded to give generously, I am inclined to resist.

There is a difference here between admonishing to "give until it hurts" and counseling a board of directors about the necessity of leading by example. A board has a fiduciary responsibility for the organization which includes securing adequate contributed support. If a board has decided to embark upon a campaign, it must demonstrate its leadership to others by its willingness to shoulder the work required to undertake such an effort and by giving individually and collectively at a level that will inspire others. Even so, the exhortation to make sacrificial gifts will likely engender resistance and resentment.

If we agree that sacrifice is intrinsic to the individual, then we realize that our exhortations as development professionals will make little difference anyway. The response of those people inclined to make self-sacrifices is predetermined in a sense. Our telling them what they should or should not do will have little, if any, influence. They will act in accordance with that inner voice that calls them to reach out to help others, to make a difference in the world.

Self-indulgence, if it is entertained at all, will likely be taken in small measures such as a long, hot soak in the tub, rather than in extravagant expenditures in material goods. In fact, such people are usually quick to identify instances of their own selfishness and rarely perceive the sacrifices they make as self-denial. They have taken to heart Saint Paul’s advice to the Hebrews: "Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have; God is pleased by sacrifices of that kind." Or Solomon’s words of wisdom in Proverbs: "To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice." Their inner voice compels them to do good. To do so is not sacrifice; it is affirmation of their values.

Lastly, the reason I don’t promote the concept of sacrificial giving any more is that I have learned that making thoughtful gifts that have a significant impact is experienced as joy, not sacrifice. People who haven’t given of themselves in this way cannot grasp the possibility of the joy of giving. They find it difficult to ask others to give, because they have not experienced the satisfaction and gratification of giving generously. Giving is perceived as giving up or giving away. It is seen as a diminishment of personal resources, not as an enhancement of their sense of self and their role in life.

I have been privileged to witness the joy of giving time and again. It clothes the giver in a kind of luminescence that is unmistakable — a peaceful glow that is at once energizing and calming. It has little to do with the size of the gift. Rather, it is the giver’s sense of participation in a purpose greater than him- or herself and confidence that the world will be a better place for it. It is the feeling of at-one-ment with the world.

It reminds me of the admonition of theologian Thomas Merton in The Seven Storey Mountain. "(A)ll men who live only according to their five senses, and seek nothing beyond the gratification of their natural appetites for pleasure and reputation and power, cut themselves off from that charity which is the principle of all spiritual vitality and happiness because it alone saves us from the barren wilderness of our own abominable selfishness."

People like the woman at the beginning of this column act in concert with their hearts, hearts given in service to others. Their actions are not sacrifices in their own eyes; they are simply living out their own destinies, their intrinsic selves. In the view of James Hillman in The Soul’s Code, it "is about calling, about fate, about character, about innate image. Together they make up the ‘acorn theory,’ which holds that each person bears a uniqueness that asks to be lived and that is already present before it can be lived."

If we believe this, then our responsibility as development professionals is not to exhort people to give sacrificially. Our responsibility is to discern their calling and present them opportunities to live it.

Suggested reading:

Fromm, Erich, The Art of Being, The Continuum Publishing Company, New York, 1989.

Hillman, James, The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, Random House, New York, 1996.

Merton, Thomas, The Seven Storey Mountain, Harcourt Brace and Company, New York, 1948.

Michael R. Maude, ACFRE, FAHP
Partners In Philanthropy

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