For one month, I have tossed every fund-raising appeal from the day’s mail into a large box. I empty the contents onto my floor: 62 separate appeals, weighing a total of 3.5 pounds.
First I peruse the political appeals, an assortment of phony surveys and fake telegrams. The political fortunes of Klanner David Duke especially alarm liberal politicians, whereas conservatives seem preoccupied with the photos of Robert Mapplethorpe.
Next comes a series of appeals from environmental causes (including my favorite, Friends of the Musk Ox). Unless I act, miners and loggers will despoil Alaska’s remaining wilderness, zebra mussels will swallow Lake Michigan, and old growth forests will fall to the chain saws. (How many young growth forests die to provide paper for these fund-raising packets?)
The rest of the stack of mail, two-thirds of the total, comes from religious groups. Simon Wiesenthal is a faithful correspondent along with various obscure Jewish organizations. I also get appeals from Catholic orders. The Passionist Monastery assures me that for a minimum $10 contribution I can have 12 loved ones in purgatory remembered in a special Mass on All Souls’ Day. Or, I can send my money to Servants of the Paraclete to assist with rehabilitation of fallen priests and brothers.
By far most of the letters in the the stack, however, bear the return addresses of evangelical organizations. What strikes me first is how closely they resemble the appeals from everybody else: the same red “URGENT!” headlines on the envelopes, the same P.S.’s underlined in blue ink, the same “challenge grants” that require me to act within ten days if I want my donation to double in value. These folks must all attend the same seminars.
With a little research, I discover that one complete direct-mail package, including postage and list rental, costs about 26 cents. The cost increases if the letter is personalized, “Dear Mr. Yancey”—or “Dear Mr. Chicken,” in the case of my neighbor, Popeye’s Chicken. But when an organization rents lists to prospect for new donors, perhaps only one in 100 people will respond. Thus it may cost the organization $26 to extract your first $25 contribution. (This practice, called “cold prospecting,” is not to be confused with Arctic mining.)
I am trying hard not to be cynical about this whole business. I sympathize with an organization’s need to communicate to donors. Indeed, the reason I receive so many fund-raising letters is that I respond to such appeals.
But when is enough enough? Reading 62 appeal letters in a row, I am impressed mainly by all the gimmicks employed. A group soliciting money for Bibles for Russia has a catchy red “Approved: Government of the USSR” stamp on the envelope. One Christian television station promises me a miracle if I will give a multiple of seven: $7.77, $77.77, or $777.77 (the largest amount also earns me a framed original page from a 1564 Bible).
So far I have received six VHS tapes highlighting the work of various missions, which I am saving for the day I finally break down and buy a VCR. One of those organizations also graciously sent me a check for $1,500. Alas, I discovered the check was made out not to me, but to the organization who sent it, as a crafty way of underscoring a challenge grant. “This facsimile check is valid only if accompanied by a check of equal or greater amount from Mr. & Mrs. Philip D. Yancey.”
Fund-raising appeals tend to follow current events, and it appears the Middle East has now replaced Eastern Europe as the crisis of choice. Whereas a few months ago I was being asked to help distribute Bibles in Red Square and save AIDS children in Romania, now I am asked to support Kuwaiti refugees and sponsor a translation of a children’s Bible storybook into Arabic (“Exact locations cannot be revealed because disclosure may be life-threatening”).
A letter from the American Leprosy Mission evokes much sympathy, but perhaps not for the reasons its senders intend: I feel sad for an organization that must faithfully do battle against such an old-fashioned problem. Although there are 12 million persons with leprosy in the world, the disease never makes the “hot” list in anyone’s catalogue of emergencies.
In order to get some perspective on this issue, I turn to 2 Corinthians 8–9 and read the longest fund-raising appeal in the Bible. It’s a masterpiece of pressure diplomacy. The apostle Paul heaps praise on the generous Macedonians in hopes of stirring the competitive instincts of his target audience, the Corinthians. He holds up the ultimate example of Jesus: “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor.” He flatters the Corinthians in advance for their anticipated gift.
Yet here is a very strange thing. I search these chapters in vain for any clue as to what the Corinthians are being asked to give for. Paul directs attention not to the Jews threatened by famine near Jerusalem (Rom. 15:25), but to the comfortable donors themselves. He portrays not the needy recipients, starving Jewish children in the desert, but rather the donors, spiritually enriched believers in Corinth.
Paul extols giving as a spiritual discipline that demonstrates the sincerity of Christian love, follows in the footsteps of Christ, and honors the Lord himself. Finally, giving offers an outstanding witness to the watching world: “Men will praise God for the obedience … and for your generosity.”
God loves a cheerful giver, not a reluctant one, Paul declares in this passage. No wonder. Once we understand giving’s value to ourselves, not to the recipients, we can’t help sneaking a grin. Giving, like love, never diminishes us. Many blessings redound upon the happy donor. In Paul’s words, it helps “enlarge the harvest of your righteousness.”
After reading Paul’s letter, I went back through all 62 appeals for my funds. Not one focused on my need as a Christian to honor God by fulfilling his command. The benefits they mentioned were much more temporal: a photo calendar, my name in an honor roll of contributors, a free book worth $14.95.
So who’s right, the fund-raising experts who conclude that American Christians are too self-interested to respond to high-minded appeals, or the apostle Paul, who broke every fund-raising rule in the book? If only we had the donor records from Corinth …
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