As fundraisers and human beings, all of us understand the importance of belonging. It is about being part of something. In our case, it is about engaging others in our mission, our causes, our ministries. It is about inviting others to feel “one with.” It is about inclusion, not exclusiveness. It is part of the human condition.
Peter Block, in his book, Community: The Structure of Belonging (Barrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 2009) offers several definitions of belonging. The first is “to be related, to be part of something.” The second definition deals with ownership where one “co-owns” the community to which one chooses to affiliate. In the third, he describes it as “a longing to be.” Here he talks about a capacity for deeper meaning and purpose. (p.xii)
I can remember my first days on the playground at school. We played a game called “Red Rover.” In hindsight, it was a very Darwinian game. In the game the class was divided evenly into two teams. Each team formed a human chain. The object of the game was for the teams to take turns inviting someone from the other team to run as hard as they could and try to break a link in the chain. If the chain was broken, the children who had allowed the link to break were out of the game. If the chain was not broken, the runner was “captured” and could not return to his or her team. The game continued until one team had lost all its players. Two students were selected as the captains and they took turns choosing their teammates. The bigger and stronger kids were always picked first. Another little girl and I were always picked last. We were almost always eliminated in the very beginning and spent most of our playground days on the sidelines.
When we got into middle school, the game changed to “Dodge Ball.” Although my playmate and I were still the smallest in stature, we were quick on our feet and could survive a few rounds, hiding behind kids who made bigger targets. We were never considered as top picks by any dodge ball captain.
Then came junior high and I learned to play softball. I was still the smallest in my class and I wanted to play shortstop. I thought because I was short and quick, this would be the perfect position for me. My coach thought otherwise. He told me I had a unique gift and I was going to be a real asset to the team. I was small and quick but I also was left-handed. All my young life I thought being a “leftie” was a disadvantage. My handwriting was poor and I had a difficult time cutting things because the scissors hurt my hand. I always had to pay special attention to using my right hand to make the Sign of the Cross and when saying the Pledge of Allegiance. My watch band was always getting caught in spirals of the notebooks because both watches and notebooks are designed for right-handed people. Until that spring in seventh grade, I thought most people are “right” handed and I am “wrong” handed.
I played first base and became a back-up pitcher. At that time, all the great first basemen in the big leagues were left-handed and many of the best pitchers were also. My small stature in the batting box made it almost impossible to be called out on strikes. So I became the lead-off hitter on our team because when I hit the ball it went to the opposite side of the field, where there was often a gap. If I didn’t swing, I got walked. Additionally, my size, speed and being a leftie allowed me to bunt fairly well. Once I was on base, I could steal. And, for the first time, I was considered an asset, not a liability, to my teammates. Finally, I really belonged to a team. I was a real contributor!
How do we really treat those who choose to invest in our missions? Do we think of them only in terms of the size and frequency of their gifts? How do we say thank you? How do we make them feel they are part of us? How do we help them discover their own specialness and importance? How do we help them realize their potential for generosity through participation in our mission? How do we come to know our donors better?
All of us have stories about the surprise bequest we received from someone who had only given to us a few times or only a “small” gift. Perhaps, it is time to ask ourselves why are we caught off guard? How come we didn’t recognize how important our organization, our cause, our mission was to this person while they were still alive? Why didn’t we ever see them as a “starter” on our team? And what about the potential of our other donors? Why wouldn’t they consider leaving us in their wills? Have we invested our time and energy in recognizing them in a meaningful way? Have we taken the chance to put them in our starting line-up and offered them a position in the “infield?” When do they get to bat first? Or do we see some of our donors as our weakest link or too small? What if we looked at our analytics differently? What if we take some risks and give new opportunities for engagement to a slightly different segment of our list? Can we offer deeper meaning and purpose to our donors?
American Express changed their tagline from “Membership has its privileges,” to “Welcome in.” However, unlike other credit card companies, they still call their cardholders “members.” They have simply broadened the meaning of being a member of American Express. Everyone is now welcome to belong. I think there is a lesson in this AMEX business strategy for all of us. Don’t you?