On Being Realistic

We are not here to be realistic. We are here to change reality.

Don’t be foolish: we aren’t going to end hunger by the end of the year. But don’t be overly cautious: we can end hunger someday, and we can do it by feeding one person at a time.

‘Being realistic’ is too often code for being too cautious, for backing off the big idea, for playing it safe. ‘Being realistic’ too often means: don’t take the risk; don’t dream big.

I wonder who the first person was to look at a plan to eradicate smallpox and say: be realistic.

I wonder if anyone replied: We’re not here to be realistic; we’re here to change reality.




Governing and Calvinball

For Christmas, I received the complete boxed set of Calvin and Hobbes, the great newspaper comic strip by Bill Watterson that ran from 1985 to 1995. This was easily my favorite comic strip growing up (its only serious competition being Gary Larson’s The Far Side) and many of its ideas have stuck with me: the wagon rolling down a hill at breakneck speeds, Spaceman Spiff, the transmogrifier…

…and Calvinball.

Calvinball, if you’re not familiar with the comic strip, is a game where players make up the rules as they go along. Except for the rule that rules cannot be used twice, rules cannot be used twice, so every game of Calvinball is different.

To Calvin and Hobbes, the point of Calvinball is to have fun, unhampered by the rules of formal sports. In real life, there are people who play Calvinball for the same reason. But in a lot of areas of our lives, the principles of Calvinball are used for another reason: we change the rules of the games we’re playing so that, whatever we do, we win.

Lately, this is how the principles of Calvinball have been applied to government.

Last week, Elizabeth Warren was sanctioned for reading a letter from Coretta Scott King regarding the nomination of Jeff Sessions. The original letter was written in 1986 in response to Sessions’s nomination to Federal District Court Judge for the Southern District of Alabama. Warren, of course, was using it as an argument against his nomination to United States Attorney General.

Mitch McConnell invoked the rarely used Rule XIX.2: “No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.” It’s a rule used so rarely – usually, senators just threaten to invoke it as a warning to another senator – that it’s easier to find examples of times when it probably should have been used than times when actually has been.

But this isn’t the only recent example of the rules (suddenly) being used or changed to suit those in power.

The Republican-controlled legislature of North Carolina, for example, moved to severely limit the power of the governor after a Democrat won the election. A court recently blocked this legislation, but that doesn’t change the attempt or the motive: to change the rules so that Republicans could keep their power.

Similarly, when senate Democrats boycotted the Finance Committee’s votes on cabinet nominees, the committee abandoned the rule that said members of both parties had to be present. The Democrats insist that they would have been happy to move forward once certain questions were answered, but Republicans preferred to change the rules to suit their desires.

I don’t mean to pick on Republicans here. I’m sure both sides play Calvinball to some degree. But this kind of rule-changing (or highly selective rule enforcement) creates serious challenges for responsible governance. Changing the rules so that one side of the debate has always already won undermines democracy: it ensures that the minority voice can never be heard.

So how about we make a deal for both parties to follow: no more Calvinball.


Sorry for the relative silence around here recently, but as you can see I’ve been doing some renovations to the site. I’m sure I’ll be finding bits an pieces that need fixed over the next few days and weeks (and months and years). If you find anything that you think needs my attention, please head over to my home page and use the contact form to drop me a message. Thanks!

I hope to be back to my regular posting schedule soon.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Donald Trump’s Executive Order on Refugees

On Friday, January 27, Donald Trump signed an executive order suspending the admission of refugees from Syria indefinitely, suspending America’s refugee program entirely for 120 days, and barring all people from certain ‘terror prone’ countries for 90 days. The list of ‘terror prone’ countries – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia – are all Muslim-majority countries where Trump does not have business ties.

He signed the order on Holocaust Memorial Day, a time when we should remember that millions of people were murdered in Europe because they were Jewish. And because no one – including the United States – would give them refuge.

As a Christian, I believe that the only requirement for receiving help is the presence of need. I cannot and will not discriminate on the basis of religion, ethnicity, national origin, or any other criterion. And I believe that it is immoral and unjust for the United States to do so.

As the writers of the Soviet Jewish Refugee Solidarity Sign-On Letter say, we “must not turn our backs on the human beings who are fleeing violence and persecution… nor abandon our highest national values and the demands of basic decency.”


Note: Between writing and publishing this post, a federal judge issued a stay on Mr. Trump’s executive order. While I’m thankful for this, it does not mean that the fight is over.

Fundraising and the Chart of Accounts

Every fundraiser knows that data is important. Knowing our supporters is vital, and what we need to know more than anything is how to ask them, when to ask them, and how much to ask them for. The best way to do that is by observing their past behavior. People, as a friend of mine likes to say, are reliably themselves; all things being equal, people will tend to do what they’ve always done. And if we know what someone has always done, we can subtly make other things not equal and try to change that behavior.

This is why your database is so important. It’s an ongoing record of what your donors, volunteers, and others do. A clean database is a truly amazing tool.

Of course, databases are rarely clean. I’d even say that they’re often dirty.

There are perfectly normal reasons that databases get dirty. Data entry errors mess up titles and spelling. Normal moves mess up address, phone number, and email accuracy. Deaths mess up… well, everything.

And there a lot of services that will help you clean those things up. But something that’s not often discussed is the chart of accounts. The chart of accounts is a list of all of the accounts in the general ledger of the organization: all of the cash, securities, accounts receivable, liabilities, payable wages, revenue, and so on. It’s usually kept and maintained by the financial people… and what makes sense to them doesn’t always make sense to the development folks.

Let me explain.

In development, we care about few basic things about every gift. On the one hand, we want to know about the gift itself: how much it was, when it came in, and so on. On the other hand, we want to know how the gift is related to three things:

The constituentThis is the person or organization who made the gift.

The appeal. This is what we did to get the gift.

The fund. This is the purpose for which the constituent intended the gift.

Ideally, we want every gift to have these three relationships. And we don’t want these three things to have any overlap. So, for example, if our unrestricted gifts go into the unrestricted fund, we don’t want any events to have a fund. What would we do if an event raised unrestricted money? We want our events to be appeals.

How does this get messed up? One organization I know had more than 150 funds in its development database. Some of them were real funds. A lot of them were appeals or constituents or both. One ‘fund’ was only for unrestricted dollars from one particular funder, another was for one grant from one funder, another was from unrestricted dollars from a single event, and so on. Meanwhile, all restricted gifts from individuals went into a single ‘restricted’ fund (the actual restrictions were put in a note). When the leadership of the organization wanted to know how much was raised for a particular program, it had to know all of the ‘funds’ – which grants, which events, and so on – that were related to that program and search through the notes! When development staff wanted to find donors to particular programs, they had to do through the same process! A lot of time could have been saved – and more accurate analysis provided – by cleaning up the chart of accounts.

The fact is that the finance office had been making all of the decisions about how to enter gift data in the fundraising database. And while I love the finance people I’ve worked with over the years, their skill set and priorities are very different from the skill set and priorities that development people have. The system that had been put it place didn’t work.

And cleaning it up wasn’t easy.

Clean data is important. It’s the only way for a fundraiser to keep track of an organization’s relationships with thousands of donors. And keeping your list of funds clean is critical to understanding donor behavior and interest.

So, since it’s still early in the new year, here’s a resolution. Sit down with your director of development and ask them, “If you could remake the list of funds that you deal with, what would you do?”

It will make a world of difference.

People I Read: Lawyers, Guns, and Money

In the early-ish days of blogging, it was normal to have a blogroll: a list of links to other (often more popular) blogs that the author was interested in. The blogroll would sit calmly in the sidebar and let readers browse their way to other blogs and other authors, discovering fresh ideas and insights. Now, nobody maintains a blogroll. The best hope you have of finding someone else is to follow a link in the body of a post or in a comment or in a link dump. Around here, they also show up in link posts that I share fairly frequently.

But the fact is that I kind of miss the blogroll, and I think that it’s worthwhile to share some of the blogs I read and a note one why I read them. I’ll try to put up one example every couple of weeks.

This post’s person I read is everyone at Lawyers, Guns, and Money.

I try to stay non-partisan on this site, but the fact is that I’m pretty far to the left on most policy issues. I mean, I’m in favor of a universal basic income. Odds are I didn’t vote for Donald Trump.

I read a handful of political sites. One of my absolute favorites is Lawyers, Guns, and Money. As far as I can tell, this is one of the original blogs of the political left. And I’ve been reading it long enough that I can’t remember when I started. A brilliant group of authors – including artists, historians, political scientists, and lawyers – writes about politics, culture, law school, and dozens of other topics.

If you’re on the political left or interested in short, quippy political analysis (and longer analyses of other topics), go and read.

Richard Beck posted this quote shortly after I published a post titled No Country but the Kingdom and a sermon titled Jesus the Refugee. It seemed appropriate to share it here.

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country… They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law.

As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I posses a billion dollars. As long as millions of people are inflicted with debilitating diseases and cannot expect to live more than thirty-five years, I can never be totally healthy even if I receive a perfect bill of health from Mayo Clinic. Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. John Donne placed this truth in graphic terms when he affirmed, “No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the maine.” Then he goes on to say, “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

CNBC: Finland Experiments with Universal Basic Income Scheme

“A universal basic income would provide a much more secure income base in an age of deepening economic and social insecurity and unpredictable work patterns,” economists Howard Reed and Stewart Lansley said in a report on basic income published in May last year.

“It would offer much greater financial independence and freedom of choice for individuals between work and leisure, education and caring while recognizing the huge value of unpaid and voluntary work.”