In my first job after college, I wrote grant applications for a major orchestra. This work required me to stay knowledgeable about local philanthropy, so I once attended a panel discussion featuring several of the city’s leading donors, discussing their priorities for giving and their preferences for how to be approached for a gift. The room was filled with other grant writers, major gift officers, development directors, and others, waiting to discover how to tap into all that wealth.
Most of the panelists were in their fifties or sixties; their giving came after a successful career provided them with the means to give. One donor, however, was only a few years older than I was. The scion of an old and wealthy family, she had inherited millions in her early twenties, upon the unexpected death of her parents. While she spoke strongly about causes she supported, what jumped out most to me was her frustration with fundraisers who hadn’t done their homework, approaching her for gifts to organizations she would never support, ignoring the clear guidelines of her family’s foundation, and, worst of all, confusing her family with another local dynasty with a similar name:
“They don’t even know who I am!”
At the time, her comments struck me as incredibly arrogant. I couldn’t relate to her at all. I was on the opposite end of the ask, trying to get her to write a large check so that I could justify my low-paying, barely-making-ends-meet job, while she (I imagined) lived a carefree Scrooge McDuck-style life. She was right. I couldn’t care less who she was: I just wanted her money.
The Loneliness of Wealth
Henri Nouwen wrote many famous books about spirituality, but the first thing I read by him was a fundraising pamphlet. The Spirituality of Fund-Raising (PDF) collects several of Nouwen’s reflections about fundraising, and it came highly recommended to me at a time when I had shifted from writing grant applications (a fairly impersonal way of raising money) for a large, well-established organization (which had many other sources of revenue) to making face-to-face requests to support my own salary, often from friends and family members. The pressure was great, and I struggled to develop a healthy attitude toward the process.
Nouwen introduced me to a radically different way of thinking about wealthy donors: they were people just like me! Their positions – the roles they play – affect both how others interact with them and how they perceive themselves. Nouwen writes,
Many rich people are very lonely. Many struggle with a sense of being used. Others suffer from feelings of rejection or depression. It may seem strange to say, but the rich need a lot of attention and care. This is very important to recognize, because so often I have come in touch with rich people who are totally in the prison of thinking, “The only thing people see in me is money. Wherever I go, I am the rich aunt or the rich friend or the rich person, so I stay in my little circle, because as soon as I leave it people say, ‘She’s rich!’”
When I now think about the wealthy young woman on that philanthropy panel, I now see someone who was known primarily for her wealth, not for who she really was. She was constantly being approached by people like – well, like me, who didn’t care about anything other than her wealth. She must have been solicited by hundreds of fundraisers over the course of the year; her frustration now makes total sense to me. Further, her wealth didn’t come from a lifetime of hard work and financial success. It had been bestowed on her by a family tragedy. Most of us, I bet, would trade our bank accounts for a few more years with our parents; few of us would have such a literal connection between our parents’ death and our own net worth. I don’t know her, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she doesn’t see her wealth as a curse as much as a blessing.
Seeing the Person
I’ve written both about the danger of confusing our personal identify with the role we play at work. There’s also a danger in seeing people only in terms of the role they play (or that we think they play). I saw the wealthy young woman strictly in utilitarian terms – how could I use her to benefit myself? – while ignoring her as a person. This was one of the dynamics I struggled with when I was fundraising, because I had a very difficult time separating my relationship with a donor from the transaction of receiving a donation from them. In fact, I often felt relieved when someone turned me down, because the tension between relationship and transaction would disappear. (This is probably why I wasn’t a very good fundraiser.)
This tension, however, was only one part of my life, and not even the entirety of my work. For this wealthy young woman, though, the tension between relationship and transaction could very well have consumed her entire life. I hope that she had friends and family whose love for her was unquestioned. The alternative would be unbearable.
Most of us probably aren’t asking wealthy people for donations on a regular basis, but we do interact with many people every day on a strictly transactional basis: the barrista who serves me coffee, the contractor who fixes our plumbing, the gas station clerk who sells us a pack of gum. Unlike the wealthy young woman, they probably aren’t thinking “You don’t even know who am I!” when we cross paths with them, but we should endeavor to keep in mind the person behind the role, whatever the role might be.
Photo credit: VCU Libraries
- With Nouwen’s words in mind, the struggles of wealthy young athletes make a lot more sense. The sudden influx of wealth brings with it an endless stream of people who want a share of that wealth. ↩