So many charities, so many choices. This time of year, year-end fundraising appeals pour into our mailboxes. How are we to decide between the many worthy nonprofit causes that are asking for financial support?
If you’re anything like Kelly (my wife) and me, you have to make this choice carefully. We’ve set aside a certain amount each year in our charitable giving budget, and we want our donor dollars to make an impact.
For us, there are two giving categories that won’t budge anytime soon: the local church and the poor. We believe we have both a duty and a joyful opportunity to support our local church (Littleton Christian Church) as it proclaims the gospel to our community and nonprofits like HOPE International that are serving the poor and marginalized throughout the world. I believe these two categories should be universal priorities for Christians.
But I think many Christians have often overlooked a third category for charitable giving: culture. Actually, I believe the culture category is necessary considering the redemptive scope of the resurrection and what it means to be a follower of Christ in this world. Education, the arts, scientific research, leadership development, even politics (Did I really just write that?) The broader arena in which we work and live needs generous donor support – and without generous culture patrons, our entire civilization is negatively affected. Not a small claim to defend!
Here are three reasons why I think we all need to add “culture” to our annual giving priorities:
Imagine if you had to buy a $20 ticket to go to church each Sunday. Would you be incensed? What if you grew up in a community with no symphony, or you never visited an art museum or arboretum as a kid? Do you feel like other children should have that experience today – even if they can’t pay for it?
We live in the age of philanthrocapitalism – a view that says philanthropists ought to act like angel investors, and nonprofits should cease with this fundraising nonsense and act more like businesses.
Many nonprofits should indeed develop earned revenue streams (book sales, event ticket sales, or fee for service). And many organizations need to vastly improve reporting and metrics. But some valuable human endeavors are simply not profitable. And never will be.
(A) Education. It’s not profitable. It just isn’t. When a Ph.D. student spends five years studying medieval Hebrew manuscripts, or a kid learns a multiplication table for the first time in second grade, there’s no way these activities can – or should – be profitable. Experiments in for-profit higher education, like the University of Phoenix, haven’t gone well. The point is that education is good… and costly. And it will perpetually require donor and/or government support to impact lives and shape an educated citizenry, which our businesses, churches, hospitals and, yes, schools, depend on.
(B) Science. Building the large hadron collider, a massive particle accelerator, is costly. Really costly – to the tune of about $13.25 billion. Now, why on earth would anybody fund this? Because this activity could push all of humanity forward through a new scientific breakthrough. It’s not profitable – but it is valuable. Cancer research, a children’s hospital, the chemistry department at your local university – each need donor support.
I fully understand the need for sustainability in the nonprofit world. Trust me: as the executive director of a nonprofit, I understand this. We actively work on minimizing risk and diversifying our income streams. But it’s also worth remembering that there are incredibly valuable human endeavors that require generosity and can only flourish with the support of people who think private schools and preserving primate habitats – “culture” – are worth donor support.
Colossians 1:19-20 says, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” All things, many theologians have pointed out, means the individual soul but also neighborhoods, cities, and entire areas of human endeavor, like art, law, manufacturing, agriculture, retail, and investing.
Or take a less-quoted example: Zephaniah 3. When God judges Israel for her sin, he says, “Her officials within her are roaring lions; her rulers are evening wolves, who leave nothing for the morning. Her prophets are unprincipled; they are treacherous people. Her priests profane the sanctuary and do violence to the law.” God is judging not just individuals, but cultural norms that had become unjust. He speaks to government leaders, the media (ancient prophets functioned in many ways like the media of today), and corrupt religious leaders.
God’s law, given through Moses at Sinai, lays down a vision for a just society, not the private salvation of individuals nor isolated acts of charity. As soon as he tells people to “act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God,” he follows up by mentioning the integrity (or lack thereof) of their business practices (Micah 6:8-11).
God cares about all of his creation, from neurotransmitters to nuclear energy. And because of human sin, each area of the world is distorted due to sin. Syria is crumbling, spiritual emptiness is rampant, caustic partisan division is paralyzing Washington, and refugees are suffering.
Anthony Bradley, a theologian at The King’s College, defines human flourishing as “a holistic concern for the spiritual, moral, physical, economic, material, political, psychological and social context necessary for human beings to live according to their design.” Does our giving reflect this broad view of human flourishing?
We can’t change all that has gone wrong and cannot give to every cause. But we can do something. Why not pick an area of culture – like spurring on the generosity movement, contributing to the formation of a potential leader, or even giving to a bunch of scholars thinking about culture – and give generously?
Last week I was talking with my friend David, who, through his career, has become personal friends with many high ranking government officials in Africa. One day, he took an emerging leader from the Congo (a lawyer by trade) to visit one of the world’s biggest private equity funds (hundreds of billions in assets). The fund manager said, “We’re interested in investing significantly in the Congo. But we can’t yet. Because of the scope of the investment, we need to see political stability for at least 10 years before we invest.”
The young leader went away encouraged knowing that this investment could create thousands of jobs for his countrymen. Yet he also knew he needed to work on building networks of moral integrity in the upper echelon of leadership in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to help stabilize a county that’s been torn by civil war.
The point has been well made by documentaries like Poverty, Inc. or books such as Entrepreneurship for Human Flourishing that entrepreneurship and business does more to alleviate systemic poverty than charity ever will. But that’s not to say that charity isn’t necessary. On the contrary, what we most need is a certain kind of moral fiber among business leaders that turns wealth creation into societal benefit. Earning more money can mean the chance to buy more whisky and prostitutes, or it can mean the chance to invest in your kid’s education. The formation of ethical leaders, especially in business, is critical to poverty alleviation. (Gary Haugen has also made the case that the rule of law and preventing violence from sweeping through countries is also critical to development work.)
In summary, if we care about the poor, we can’t just give to the next natural disaster or emergency fundraising appeal we get in the mail. We need to build up institutions and the people who lead them because it leads to jobs, stability, and cultures of virtue that can put poverty to rest for good.
Americans are the most generous people in the world. We give away over $1 billion dollars a day. We give away $373 billion a year – and 73 percent of that is from individuals like you and me. (Though we give the most by total contributions, Australia and New Zealand edge us by a greater percent of people who give to charity each year.)
And people of religious faith are the most generous of all Americans. It’s controversial, but true. Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute reports that the average annual giving among the religious is $2,210 per year, whereas it is $642 among secular Americans. Christians even give to secular causes more generously than secular people.
I strive to give more generously for the core reason that God has first given generously to me.
It’s makes me excited to give this year to the church, to the poor – and to the cultural endeavors that God so loves (John 3:16; 2 Corinthians 5:19).
Jeff Haanen is a writer and entrepreneur. He founded Denver Institute for Faith & Work, a community of conveners, teachers and learners offering experiences and educational resources on the gospel, work, and community renewal. He is the author of An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life and an upcoming two-book series on spiritual formation, vocation, and the working class for Intervarsity Press. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Denver and attends Wellspring Church in Englewood, Colorado.