People I Read: The ideas42 Blog

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 the ideas42 blog.

ideas42 is a consulting group started by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir (the authors of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much) and including an impressive roster of researchers. They perform research in behavioral sciences and develop ways to apply their findings to social problems. Their work ranges from redesigning violation and misdemeanor tickets in New York to improve compliance to redesigning Alliant’s credit services so that they can serve low income consumers. The most important work that they do is bring empirical research in behavior science to addressing poverty. In a field where policy is often determined by ‘common sense’, actual data is a welcome disruptor. Their blog is a great source for cutting edge research in behavioral science.

The New York Review of Books: The Undermining of American Charity

We now write because we are alarmed about a major new force that has entered the field of charitable giving. It has so far been hardly noticed by the general public. But now it is threatening to undermine the American system for funding charity. This force is the commercial “donor-advised fund,” the fastest-growing, but still largely unknown, charitable vehicle. Donor-advised funds (or DAFs) give donors all of the tax benefits of charitable giving while imposing no obligation that the money be put to active charitable use.

The New York Review of Books: The Undermining of American Charity

Four Steps to Choosing Your Next Donor Database

Every day, some huge number of nonprofit organizations is looking for a new donor database solution. I know this because they come to forums I frequent and ask, “What donor management system should my organization buy?”

It’s an impossible question to answer. Every organization is different and has different needs. And there are a lot of donor management systems out there. Playing matchmaker – without knowing a lot of organizational details – isn’t an option (and wouldn’t be ethical).

But there are steps that every organization can take to separate the wheat from the chaff and make the right decision for themselves. I’ve been through a donor database change at every organization I’ve worked for, so let me show you my four steps to choosing a donor database.

Make Your List

Yes, there are some things that every database is going to do, and there are some things that every organization needs. But once you’re past the basics, what does your organization need? Do you need to track pledges? Manage events? Compose and send mass emails? Generate segmented mailing lists? Track online peer-to-peer fundraisers?

Every organization has different needs, and you need to know yours.

The first step in choosing a new donor database is making a list of the features you want and need, as well as features you have no use for. I recommend ranking those features as well. A simple four point scale works well:

  • Features that we need
  • Features that are important but not necessary
  • Features that are desired but not important
  • Features that you don’t have any use for

The point, of course, is to know what you’re looking for before you start looking at flashy demos and listening to salespeople. You don’t want to discover that you’re missing a vital feature – or that you’re paying for features you’re not going to use – after you’ve signed a contract.

Schedule a Live Demo

Almost nothing beats a live demo when it comes to understanding a database. When I say ‘live demo’, I don’t just mean a demo where you’re seeing someone show you the software. I mean one where you can have a conversation about the software; one where you can ask questions and get answers.

This is where your list really comes to life. If you have a feature you need (or even want), ask to see that feature demonstrated. If you need to track grants for your organization, ask the demonstrator to input and report on a grant. If you need an event registration form on your website, ask the demonstrator to show you how the software will handle that.

If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class, the same basic rule applies: show, don’t tell.

Also be sure to ask about pricing, support, training, conversion costs, and the roadmap for the future of the software. More companies are moving to a software as a service model, and you’re signing up for a relationship, not just a product.

Play in the Sandbox

The only thing that beats a live demo is the chance to use the software. A sandbox is a live version of the database with actual data – usually dummy data – already in it. Ask if there’s a sandbox that you can access and, if there is, play in it!

This is your chance to try to do all of those things you need to do. Be sure to try everything. If you’re going to have to enter a hundred new constituents from your annual event, make sure that you can do that. If there’s a report you have to generate – even if it’s just once a year – try to create it. If you need to send an email based on whether the constituent has opened a previous email or made a gift in the last three month, make sure that’s possible.

And if you’re not the only person who will be using the database, share it! The people who will be entering information or generating reports need to be comfortable with the system, and may have insight that you lack.

Talk to Other Users

The greatest advocate – and the greatest critic – is the end user. Every company should be willing to give you a list of organizations that use their software (and maybe even some who recently left). Talk to people on that list!

Ask people who actually use the software on a day-to-day basis about their experience. What’s been the best thing? What’s been the worst? What workarounds have they needed? What hasn’t worked as expected? How’s the support? Listen to their answers and try to get a variety of perspectives.


There’s no such thing as the perfect database that will do everything you want exactly the way you want it. But there are, more than likely, a handful that will be close. These steps won’t guarantee that you’ll know exactly which product to buy. But they will help you narrow it down to the best.

And isn’t the best what your organization deserves?

Morgan Guyton: Can Queer Pride Save the American Church?

As a straight cisgender man, I don’t know what it’s like to finally accept my sexuality or gender identity after years of terrified secrecy, guilt, and/or ostracism from my family and peers. But I do hypothesize that the pride that happens in a queer parade is a completely different entity than the spiritual pride of Christians who give themselves the standing to look down on others by saying all the right things about their own sin. If queer pride is the complete trust and safety of publicly owning your belovedness, then it’s actually the opposite of the deadly sin of pride, which refers to the facade of infallibility too many Christians use to cope with their self-hatred.

Morgan Guyton: Can Queer Pride Save the American Church?

Minute Wise, Month Foolish

It’s an easy trap to fall into. One day, a crisis pops up and you need to solve it now. In fact, you need to solve it yesterday. So you get to work. While you’re working on that crisis, another crisis arises. There’s no time now to address the second problem, so it gets put on the back burner. But now there’s added pressure. As soon as you finish dealing with the first problem, you have to move onto the second. But by that time, problems three through seven have come on the scene.

Now you’re in a bad pattern, hopping from one crisis to the next and always with another one on the horizon.

After a while, a new culture sets in: the culture of now.

In the face of scarcity – including scarcity of time – we all tend to tunnel. Scarcity focuses our attention on the immediate at the cost of the distant. When we’re busy, that means we focus on now almost obsessively. And that focus on now comes at the expense of the future.

And that makes our organizations weaker.

But there’s an alternative.

I think about processes by nature. I’m will work furiously to solve an immediate problem, but then I have an irresistible need to sit down and figure out how to never have that problem again. That may take more time right now, but it saves time, reduces stress, and increases efficiency in the long run. Just like the person who spends a little more money now on a product that won’t need to be replaced as soon as its cheaper counterpart, a person who spends a little more time now finds that she can spend less time later.

Now, I realize that I’m in a position of privilege. I don’t work in an office where people can poke their heads in and hand me time-consuming projects. I have a fair amount of control over my schedule. There are busy seasons and quiet seasons. So it’s often the case that I can take on projects that would otherwise be neglected. That’s a gift.

But I think many more of us can set aside time to think strategically about how we can improve processes at our organizations. From time to time, we can pick a crisis that we faced and ask what would need to change so that we never had that crisis again. We can set a time for that kind of thinking, just as we would set time for a meeting: we’re going to take an hour, or a morning, or a day each week or month or quarter to change how we operate.

And, eventually, we’ll be able to leave the scarcity mindset behind. At least, we’ll be able to leave that mindset behind when it comes to scarcity of time. We’ll be able to stop being minute wise, but month foolish.

People I Read: Jeff Brooks

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 Jeff Brooks from Future Fundraising Now.

It’s a simple fact that fundraisers are writers. Many of us end up writing direct mail appeals, email appeals, social media posts, website copy, newsletter articles, and tons of other pieces with one goal in mind: making words become money for the organizations – and people – we serve. Jeff Brooks, creative director at TrueSense Marketing, has more than 20 years of experience working with nonprofits and is an expert at, well, turning words into money. Future Fundraising Now is one of the blogs I turn to for advice on fundraising, especially when it comes to writing and direct mail.

He also has a book that I highly recommend: How to Turn Your Words Into Money: The Master Fundraiser’s Guide to Persuasive Writing.

Think Your Nonprofit Can’t Afford a Database? Think Again.

Recently, I was talking to the executive director of a small nonprofit. She mentioned that her organization didn’t have a donor database – they were keeping donor information in spreadsheets – but she understood why one is important. A good database is your institutional memory; it’s where you, your colleagues, and your successors will be able to see the history, status, and growth of your relationships with donors and volunteers.

So her organization was getting its first donor database… by having a volunteer create one in Microsoft Access.

Now, it’s perfectly possible to create a good homegrown database. But there are also serious challenges. Not only do you need a well built database – one that you can’t accidentally ‘break’ – you need one that will help you raise money. You need to be able to track donor information, gift information, and interaction information. You need to be able to report on all of that information and more. You need to be able to communicate with constituents through mail, email, and social media.

And those are just the basics.

It’s easy to think that a system that can do all of this would be excruciatingly expensive. When money – and time – is tight, it seems much easier to have a volunteer create a homegrown solution than to get a professionally designed, developed, and supported database system.

But the reality is that there are several affordable database solutions for small nonprofits.

Bloomerang offers a free lite version (without email functionality) for small nonprofits and a very cheap Techsoup version (with full functionality) for slightly larger organizations. Even the standard license is fairly inexpensive at the lowest tier!

Salesforce is a very popular customer relations system in the for-profit world, and they also offer a package for nonprofits. Their enterprise edition plus nonprofit starter pack includes a long list of features. Best of all, they offer up to 10 free user licenses to qualified organizations and deep discounts on additional licenses.

CiviCRM is a free and open source database that works with WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla based websites. Because it is open source and community supported, it’s a bit more difficult to set up and maintain than Bloomerang or Salesforce. But it’s also powerful, customizable, and extendable.

Of course, there are many other development database solutions out there. The point is that there’s almost no reason to create a homegrown database when you can have a professionally designed, developed, and supported system that can actually help you raise money and improve donor engagement.

If Churches Paid Taxes

This is an article that appeared, in a couple of different forms, on previous versions of this blog. Since it critiques an opinion that’s become ‘common knowledge’ in some circles, I thought it would be good to repost it.

If Churches Paid TaxesA few years ago, the image to the right started popping up on my Facebook feed. For those who can’t see images, here’s what it says: if churches paid taxes, it would generate enough revenue ($83.5 billion) to pay for the entire Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) ($76 billion) and house everyone who is homeless.

The same concept later showed up in an article by Matthew Yglesias at Slate and, in turn, by Dylan Matthews at Wonkblog, who added material from an article by Ryan Cragun, Stephanie Yeager, and Desmond Vega titled “Research Report: How Secular Humanists (and Everyone Else) Subsidize Religion in the United States”. Both of these posts were picked up by Steve Benen at Maddowblog’s “This Week in God”.

Yglesias’s argument is fairly general, and there’s something to be said for at least a part of it. Yglesias points out that “discussing moral action is at the heart of many religious enterprises,” and that “much moral action plays itself out in the arena of politics.” It is somewhat perverse – in a soft sense – that a religious organization can advocate on behalf of the poor, but not on behalf of a partisan political party or candidate who also advocates on behalf of the poor. Likewise, it is somewhat perverse that a religious organization can organize against abortion, but not endorse political candidates who would work to end abortion legislatively.

The same issue applies to other nonprofit organizations as well, of course. Environmental nonprofits can advocate and organize to save our wetlands, but cannot endorse the candidates or parties who would actually protect those wetlands; housing nonprofits can work to increase affordable housing, but cannot endorse the candidates or parties who would create affordable housing trust funds; hunger nonprofits can operate food banks, but cannot endorse candidates or parties who would protect SNAP; and so on. If Yglesias’s argument applies to religious organizations, then it applies to all organizations that work on issues that have partisan implications. Yglesias’s argument isn’t so much against tax-exemption for religious organizations as it’s an argument against tax-exempt status more broadly.

What I want to focus on in this short series, though, is not the broader issue of tax exemption overall. Rather, I want to focus on the article by Cragun, Yeager, and Vega, as the estimates in this article seem to form the basis for assertions about how much additional revenue the government would have if religious organizations were taxed and all of the things that the government would do with it. As Matthews writes, “they’re not exactly disinterested parties; their research appeared in Free Inquiry, a publication of the Council for Secular Humanism.” However, I must disagree with Matthews’s assertion that “the data seems to check out.” The article by Cragun et al suffers from several major deficiencies:

  • The authors use various ad hoc definitions of ‘charity’ that fit neither popular understandings or the term nor the broader legal framework within which nonprofit organizations exist; in fact, the article seems wholly ignorant of that larger framework.
  • They make use of incongruous figures, using mixtures of absolute dollar amounts and percentages of revenue from different timeframes.
  • They make use of surface-level research without digging deeper into figures that they cite, causing them to make some statements that are simply false.
  • They make assumptions about the revenues of religious congregations that are (1) absurd on their face, (2) based on small samples, (3) and/or incompatible with other assumptions that they make in the article.
  • They make estimates for various taxes using methods that we would not expect to yield accurate estimates.

I’ll take each of these on in greater detail below.

One final note before we dive into the article. Cragun et al refer repeatedly to the charitable status and subsidies that ‘religion’ enjoys or that ‘religions’ enjoy. ‘Religion’, of course, is an (often poorly defined) abstract concept, and abstract concepts – no matter how well defined – are neither given nonprofit status nor taxed. What Cragun et al are discussing in their article is not ‘religion’ or ‘religions’, but religious organizations. Moreover, they are not discussing all religious organizations – organizations that the authors consider both religious and predominantly charitable are not included – but a particular kind of religious organization: religious congregations. This is more or a pet peeve than anything else – the reification of religion often seems to lead to fuzzy thinking – but it is important to be clear about what we are discussing.

Read moreIf Churches Paid Taxes

Slate: Buying Coffee Every Day Isn’t Why You’re in Debt

Warren and Tyagi demonstrated that buying common luxury items wasn’t the issue for most Americans. The problem was the fixed costs, the things that are difficult to cut back on. Housing, health care, and education cost the average family 75 percent of their discretionary income in the 2000s. The comparable figure in 1973: 50 percent. Indeed, studies demonstrate that the quickest way to land in bankruptcy court was not by buying the latest Apple computer but through medical expenses, job loss, foreclosure, and divorce.

Slate: Buying Coffee Every Day Isn’t Why You’re in Debt

The Case for Charity

I spend a lot of my time arguing against the case against charity (and linking to this post). You might get the impression that I am a relentlessly negative person, always arguing against something. But that’s not the case.

You see, I don’t just think that the case against charity is wrong. I believe that there’s a strong case to be made for charity.

And, as a Christian, I believe this for three reasons.

Charity Is a Cornerstone of the Christian Faith

Charity in the West is deeply rooted in the history of the Christian faith. The practice of giving to the poor without concern for the worthiness of the recipient comes to us from Judaism through Christianity. The very word ‘charity’ comes from the Latin word caritas, one of two Latin words used to translate the Greek word agape. Charity, quite simply, is how we imitate God’s love for us as shown the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But charity isn’t just based in Christianity. Christianity, the last sentence of the previous paragraph indicated, is based in charity.

God loved the world in this way: he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. God loves through giving. God gives the world. God gives the Torah. God gives the prophets. God gives Jesus Christ. God gives life. God gives faith and hope and charity.

And Christians respond – at least, Christians are called to respond – by sharing those gifts with others.

In the gospels, Jesus makes it absolutely clear that we are called to charity. For example, the Parable of the Judgment of the Nations, or of the Rich Man and Lazarus, or of the Rich Fool. Being charitable is a big part of what Christianity is about. And while charity in this sense isn’t limited to giving money to the poor without considering the worthiness of the recipient, that’s certainly a part of it.

Charity Presents a Different Kind of Community

In the ancient Roman Empire where Christianity was born, charity was a revolutionary idea. Here’s an example of how strange it was to Roman society. Julian the Apostate was the last pagan emperor of Rome, and he reigned after a few decades of rule by Christian emperors. One of his goals was to revitalize the Roman state religion. And one of his strategies was to import Christian charity. He gave supplies to his priests in the province of Galatia and instructed them to use some of those supplies to provide for the poor.

His attempt to turn pagan temples into food pantries failed. And today Julian is probably bet known for a single quote:

It is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.

Roman religion couldn’t comprehend charity or the kind of community that it engenders. They didn’t have the headspace for it.

But Christians practiced it and flourished. And part of why Christians flourished was that they built a more charitable community.

Today, we live in a world where the dominant ethos – whether we agree with it or not – is global market capitalism. Interactions are increasingly thought of as transactional exchanges. The market is the evaluator of values. Wealth is concentrated in ever fewer hands. The society we live in is increasingly uncharitable.

And in a uncharitable world, every act of charity is a revolutionary act.

Charity presents us with the possibility of a society where there are not transactions, where love is what gives value, and where wealth is freely shared, where there is justice and mercy. I don’t know if I think that we can bring about that world by ourselves. But charity is a small glimpse into a better world and inspiration to work on creating that world.

Charity Works

Given what I’ve written so far, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that I believe that charity is baked-into the natural order. I believe that the universe reflects the character of its creator, and that an attitude and practice of charity is the best way to ride on the currents of the cosmos. It’s not surprising that I believe that charity works.

It would be easy to attribute that belief to wishful thinking. But emerging research consistently agrees that charity – when it’s generous enough – really does work. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time you’ve seen me link to study after study that provides evidence for this.

That’s not to say that every charitable gift works. There are a lot of factors that can affect the effectiveness of charitable giving. But emerging research suggests that we might take charity as a baseline for helping low-income individuals, families, and communities.

Conclusion (of a Sort)

I hope to expand on these ideas in the future. For now, let me just say this:

The case for charity is an increasingly strong one, based on empirical data about the effectiveness of unconditional giving. This is true for everyone, regardless of their religious commitments.

That case is stronger for Christians, because our faith is deeply intertwined with the practice of charity and the cultivation of charity as a virtue. Those of us who are Christian must look beyond popular calls to accept a case against charity and into the heart of our faith. We must take seriously the possibility that we are a people called to charity.

And that’s a case I intend to make.


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