The Fat Nutritionist: If Only Poor People Understood Nutrition!

The idea is that, before we worry about nutrition (i.e., “instrumental food”) we’ve first got to HAVE food. Enough of it. Consistently. And it’s got to be acceptable to us (which, for some people, might mean not coming from the garbage, or meeting certain standards of preparation) and it’s got to taste reasonably good. A little variety is nice, too.

These are not silly little preferences that can be brushed off lightly — even “tasting good,” which seems to always be the first thing thrown out the window when someone decides to change their diet For Health Reasons.

Great Big World

This sermon was delivered at Union Congregational United Church of Christ in Moline, Illinois on May 28, 2017. The scripture for this sermon is Acts 1:6-14.

The disciples keep losing Jesus.

A little over six weeks ago, Christians around the world told a story. A passover supper. A betrayal for thirty pieces of silver. A prayer in a garden: “Remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” A crowd, a kiss, and men with swords. A denial: “Woman, I do not know him.” A trial. A sentence. A cross. A tomb.

A little over six weeks ago, Christians around the world told a story about the disciples’ expectations being thrown out the window, about their hopes being dashed. Jesus was supposed to be Messiah, the new King of Israel, the savior of their nation. But there he was, hung on a cross, laid in a grave.

The disciples keep losing Jesus.

Exactly six weeks ago, Christians around the world told the other part of that story. A tomb. An angel. A message: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here. He has risen.” A strange encounter on the road to Emmaus. A meeting in a house. Signs and wonders.

Exactly six weeks ago, Christians around the world told the other part of that story, about the disciples’ expectations being restored, about their hopes springing back to life. The Messiah, the new King of Israel, the savior of their nation was resurrected. Here he was. Surely, now, he would do what the knew every prophecy foretold.

The disciples keep losing Jesus.

And now we’re here, in this moment.

“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?”

“It is not for you to know,” says Jesus, “the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. Power will come. You will be witnesses.”

And he is lifted up, and a cloud passes by, and he is gone.

Now, the disciples have never been the sharpest knives in the drawer. They’re going to stand there for a minute, looking up at heaven, dumbfounded. But the question that they asked matters. It’s an important question. It’s a powerful question.

“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?”

The disciples are standing in front of the Messiah who has been raised from the dead. They are standing in front of the Son of Man who will judge the nations. They are standing in front of the Son of the God who is the father of orphans and protector of widows, who gives the desolate a home to live in and leads the prisoners to prosperity. And the question they ask is, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?”

The disciples were small… and they had small imaginations.

Now, small things aren’t bad. Small things are important. Small things are powerful. God uses small things: a lost coin, a mustard seed, a few loaves and a few fish… us. Small things matter.

And small people with small imaginations are the first part of so many of our stories.

When Abraham was 99 years old, God appeared to him. And God told Abraham that Abraham and his wife, Sarah, would have a son. And Sarah laughed. “After I have grown old,” she said, “and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” She had a small imagination. But the story went on.

When the Israelites were leaving Egypt and arrived at the Red Sea with Pharaoh and his armies on their heels, they complained to Moses. “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt,” they said, “that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” They had small imaginations. But the story went on.

When God spoke to Jonah, he told him to go and preach to the city of Nineveh. And Jonah ran away. He had to be thrown off a boat and swallowed by a fish and spit out on dry land before he would do what God wanted. Because he didn’t want the people of Nineveh to repent and he didn’t want God to forgive. “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning,” he said, “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” He had a small imagination. But the story went on.

And when the disciples are standing in front of Jesus, they most they can imagine is that he is the savior and restorer and king of Israel. They have small imaginations.

They are no different from us.

Right now, there are billions of people around the world who are living in poverty. Right now, there are hundreds of millions of people around the world who are living in chronic hunger. Right now, there are millions of people around the world who are living without anyplace to safe to stay. And there are so many more who are on the edge of poverty or who don’t have quite enough to eat or who live in substandard housing.

There are a lot of problems to solve. And they’re all solvable.

Right now, there is someone dreaming of heaven… and it’s being able to pay a doctor’s bill. And that’s a problem we could solve.

Right now, there is someone dreaming of heaven… and it’s feeling full for the first time since they can’t remember when. And that’s a problem we could solve.

Right now, there is someone dreaming of heaven… and it’s a warm place to sleep for just one night. And that’s a problem we could solve.

We are small, and we have small imaginations. And those small things that so many people want are important. They are powerful. They matter.

Our heavens are so small we could make them right here, right now. And for some reason, that I have never really understood, we don’t.

But God is not small. God is the father of orphans and protector of widows; all of the orphans and all of the widows. God gives the desolate a home to live in and leads the prisoners to prosperity; all of the desolate and all of the prisoners. God pours down rain in abundance and provides for the needy. All of the needy. Every. Single. One of us.

God dreams of a world where no one worries about paying bills. God dreams of a world where food overflows a table, rich food and well-aged wines. God dreams of a world where everyone has a place to live in comfort. God dreams of a world of abundance and generosity and wholeness. God dreams of a world of shalom.

We are small, and we have small imaginations. God is big, and imagines a world that we cannot imagine. My little heaven — where everyone has enough money and food and housing and all of these pesky little problems are solved — pales in comparison. I am small and I have a small heaven. God is big, and imagines a great big world.

And that brings us back to the disciples.

The disciples are small, and they have a small heaven. So they ask, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?”

“It is not for you to know,” says Jesus, “the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. Power will come. You will be witnesses.”

And he is lifted up, and a cloud passes by, and he is gone.

And the disciples stand there, for a minute, looking up at heaven, dumbfounded. But that is only the first part of the story.

Because suddenly there are two men next to them. And the men say to them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Now, the story continues next week. There will be tongues of fire and people hearing the good news in their own languages and rumors of new wine. So come back next week… it’s just getting good.

For now, though, listen to these men. We spend so much time looking up at our little heavens. And those heavens are important. They are powerful. They matter.

But these men don’t tell the disciples that one day, they’ll be taken up into heaven with Jesus. They say that Jesus will come out of heaven and back to the world. And the good news is that Jesus isn’t bringing our little heaven with him. Jesus is bringing God’s great big world — a world of abundance and generosity and wholeness, a world of shalom — with him. And our little heavens pale in comparison.

Thank God.

Something Went Wrong with Donor Centered Fundraising

When I was just getting started in fundraising, I found a battered copy of Penelope Burk’s Donor-Centered Fundraising in a desk drawer. I devoured it. It had statistics, it was based on a solid foundation of research, and it gave advice that was easy to implement. I still have a copy on the shelf in my office. I still buy copies for colleagues. I still recommend it to everyone.

I still stand by the core ideas of donor-centered fundraising. And, really, I think that comes down to three simple things:

Donors should receive prompt and meaningful thanks for their gifts. My standard is an official written acknowledgement, including a story of someone who we have helped, personally signed by someone in leadership, and sent within two business days of receiving the gift. For first time donors, I also like to add a phone call or a handwritten thank you card. And, of course, major donors sometimes get special treatment.

Donors should have choices about what their gifts are used for, and the right to support what they care about. I usually create specific, program-based funds that donors can give to. This allows me to provide the option to restrict a gift to the donor while making sure that we (the organization) control what those options are.

Donors should receive information about what their last gift accomplished before they are asked for another gift. While some of this is included in the thank you letter, this is really where newsletters, blog posts, and social media posts shine. I always want to be telling my organization’s story, and part of that story is what our donors have helped do.

But I could put all of this in simpler terms: donors are people with whom we are in relationship. They have their own desires and they give to fulfill those desires. My job as a fundraising professional is to help them realize those desires. I hope they can do that by giving to my organization. But, if they can’t, there are no hard feelings when they go somewhere else.

But something has clearly gone wrong. In the last year or so, I’ve come across two blog posts, from people I respect, who think donor-centrism is a problem. One is from Jason McNeal (and is more than a year old, but I came across it recently). The other is from Vu Le.

I’m not going to go through these criticisms of donor-centrism point by point. There are parts I agree with and parts I don’t. You should go and read them for sure.

But I also think there’s a core problem that both of these posts get to. At some point, donor-centrism stopped being a fundraising principle. People started pushing it as an organizational principle, giving the impression that organizations (not just fundraisers) should revolve around donors. People started telling donors that they were superheroes. People started putting #donorlove above all else.

And that really is a problem.

Now, I understand why it happened. It happened because organizations needed to be reminded that donors are people. I remember having to tell my boss that even if it was easier for accounting if we didn’t start entering this year’s gifts until we completely closed out last year, we couldn’t have a three week lag between receiving a gift and sending a thank you note… for the third year in a row. I remember foolishly backing down when, in response to a throwaway line in an appeal, that same supervisor said that it was emphatically not okay that a donor hadn’t given to us the previous year. I remember sitting in countless conversations where people who were so passionate about our mission that they gave tens of thousands of dollars – and people who were so passionate that they gave the last ten dollar they had – were treated like ATMs. It is easy for people who aren’t interacting with donors every day – who don’t have donors at the center of their job – to forget that donors are people.

It also happened because donor-centrism works. People are more generous when we help them see that they’re meeting their own need to do good through their gift than they are when we tell them to do what we want to do. Donors are not extensions of our desires. And they are more open to giving when we treat them as something greater than that.

But still, it’s a problem. When an organization as a whole starts serving donors before anyone else, it really does perpetuate competition, fuel systemic injustice, and proliferate savior complexes.

In any healthy organization – in any healthy community – everyone has a role to play. In a healthy nonprofit, the board and the executive director need to look after the health of the organization, the program staff need to advocate for the people they’re serving, and fundraisers need to make sure that donors are being cared for. When we each play our part, all of the voices are at the table. We can ask and answer important questions like,

Does this fit the mission of our organization?

Does this serve the people who we are called to serve in the best possible way?

Does this give our donors and other supporters a way to help solve a problem?

And it’s when all of us play a part that we can transform the world into a place of greater justice and mercy.

For fundraisers – and only for fundraisers – that part is centered on donors. And we should never try to make other people take on that challenge.

Update: Vu Le has a follow up to his original post.

‘I’m not looking for handouts like Medicare and food stamps.’

As one of the US taxpayers who fund such programs: take the help. Why do I want you to do that? Well, one, I’m happy to pay for a society where we don’t toss people into the garbage pile just because they run up on a little bad luck. Because who knows? I could be in your situation in the future. Nearly was, in the past.

But more importantly those programs exist so that a little bad luck doesn’t destroy your life, and result in it being a lot more expensive to help you in the future. A little dentistry right now is going to be cheaper than complete dental reconstruction in the future, so if you can get Medicare to pay for it now rather than later, you’re going to save us all money by doing so. Same with the food stamps – it’s cheaper to feed you now than in the future when you’re starving and sick.

Take the help. There’s no shame in it. We who have provided for these programs want you to take advantage of them because we know you’re not without worth and not without your own capabilities. It’s because of that worth and those capabilities and what we know you can achieve in the future that we want you to have help, now.

The Atlantic: How Poverty Changes the Brain

When a person lives in poverty, a growing body of research suggests the limbic system is constantly sending fear and stress messages to the prefrontal cortex, which overloads its ability to solve problems, set goals, and complete tasks in the most efficient ways.

This happens to everyone at some point, regardless of social class. The overload can be prompted by any number of things, including an overly stressful day at work or a family emergency. People in poverty, however, have the added burden of ever-present stress. They are constantly struggling to make ends meet and often bracing themselves against class bias that adds extra strain or even trauma to their daily lives.

And the science is clear—when brain capacity is used up on these worries and fears, there simply isn’t as much bandwidth for other things.

Three Thoughts on Technology (Especially in Fundraising)

Technology is a tool.

I have worked for too many places that serve their technology rather than the other way around. Real world practices end up being determined by what their technology – and especially their databases – will allow them do to. And this has meant some bizarre practices. How weird is that? I mean, would anyone accept a hammer that required you to be standing on one leg and facing away from the nail in order to use it? No. And yet we too quickly become willing to allow our technology to determine how we do things… even if that means we do things in ways that make no sense.

Or we end up not doing things at all. Database doesn’t handle moves management? It doesn’t get done. Can handle event management? We end up not tracking expenses… and thinking our events perform far better than they do. Why is that acceptable?

Obviously, there’s a relationship between our practices and our tools. Hammers leave callouses. Heavier tools can strain our muscles and shape our backs. So, yeah, to a degree our technology is going to influence our practices – and the shape of our resource development strategies. But rather than blithely accepting this, we should acknowledge and respond to how our technology influences us.

Tools are there to make life easier.

Following on the first point, look at your technology and ask this question: is this making things easier? I’ve seen organizations that have entire staff positions dedicated to being able to do things the way their technology wants it done – because it’s so complicated it takes an entire position to work it and work around it. Why is that okay?

It’s not!

If a tool isn’t making life easier – or, worse, is making life harder – get rid of it.

The single biggest problem I see with organizations and their technology is inertia. We get used to doing things the way our technology demands they be done. We get used to culling through mailing lists by hand because our database can’t handle households. We get used to the shape our offices take as they form, like a pearl, around the grain of sand that is bad technology And eventually… we can’t imagine doing things any other way!

Let your real world practices and strategies determine what your technology needs to do – that is: what it needs to help your with.

If it’s doing those things, good, you’ve made excellent technology choices.

If it isn’t, get rid of it and find another solution.

Vox: Growing Life Span Inequality Has Given the Rich an Extra $130,000 in Government Benefits

Historically, the distribution of benefits was about flat. Richer people received more Social Security benefits, but that was offset by higher Medicaid and disability insurance payouts to lower-income people. But for younger cohorts, the affluent get about $130,000 more in lifetime benefits than the poor. And they find that the most simplistic forms of program cuts that involve raising the age at which you can first claim benefits exacerbates the situation.

On the Media’s Series on Poverty Myths

I don’t know how I missed On the Media’s powerful multi-part series on myths about poverty, but I did. Busted: America’s Poverty Myths draws on some of the same research that I use in my critiques of the case against charity. This series is both a powerful indictment of how poverty is portrayed in the media and a helpful corrective. If you don’t have time to read book after book about the reality, psychology, and economics of poverty, I highly recommend listening to this series… repeatedly.

Part 1: The Poverty Tour

Part 2: Who Deserves to be Poor?

Part 3: Rags to Riches

Part 4: When the Safety Net Doesn’t Catch You

Part 5: Breaking News Consumer Handbook: Poverty in America Edition

I also recommend downloading, printing, and using the consumer’s handbook that On the Media has produced.