Recently, I sat in conversation with the Board of Directors of a nonprofit organization that does a great deal of good in the world, and would like to do more. This assemblage of fine minds and good hearts began to discuss the possibility of an Endowment of some millions of dollars to guard against the kind of economic chaos that has dominated operations for the last few years…an insurance policy to guarantee that the good work continues uninterrupted well into the future.
But I sat there thinking about other good hearts and fine minds in other places, specifically on the streets of Philadelphia, people who have a different take on money management. For example, there is Fannie Mae (a pseudonym she chose with deliberate care for this article.)
Last July 1, I encountered Fannie Mae, full of delight and glowing with good humor, wanting to share her first-of-the-month news with me. She lives on a fixed income of a few hundred dollars a month, but as she sometimes does when her check arrives in her bank account, the first thing she had done that morning was to go out and buy 40 tokens and bring them to St. Francis Inn, a Philadelphia soup kitchen and spiritual hub. She then gave them to the staff there to distribute to people needing transportation to get to medical appointments, job interviews, housing opportunities, and other necessary travel.
Fannie Mae felt great about her donation. It’s her way of showing how much she appreciates all that the Inn does, and she firmly believes in the necessity of expressing gratitude in some way. She also feels that she is an active participant in a community of donors, doing her part to aid those who have less than she. Forty tokens represent a more-than-healthy chunk of her meager monthly income. We speculated that day on what an equivalent donation would be from a millionaire, well-compensated executive, or even just someone ‘financially comfortable’. It staggers the mind, this comparison. When asked about her own always-precarious finances, she says, “I’m broke before and I’m broke after, so what difference does it make? Everyone should open their heart and soul and mind. A few dollars here and a few dollars there can save people a lot of turmoil.”
“But Fannie Mae,” I protest, “at the end of every month, you don’t have what you need!” “But I get it!” is her instantaneous retort. “It comes back down to the heart,” she says. “You do it from your heart.” Fannie Mae knows all about the heart; hers has been broken enough. I should add that the tokens are not Fannie Mae’s only regular donation; her heart has expanded to such a size that she also buys clothes for a motherless baby in the neighborhood. I am awed by her generosity.
There are studies documenting the disproportionate charitable giving of people who are themselves in need.[i] What is the secret to this amazing magnanimity of spirit? Part of the answer lies in a profoundly different attitude towards resources held by many who live on the social margins. Money is fluid, something that pours readily from hand-to-hand on an as-needed basis: If I have it today, but you need it, I’ll give it to you, trusting that when I need it, it will flow back to me.
Are there grasping, fearful, resource-clinging, stingy folks who are poor? Absolutely. Are there abundantly generous wealthy people? For sure. But it is worth noting and celebrating the spirit of giving in people like Fannie Mae, people who have so little, but do not fear giving from their want. What if all of us embodied this spirit? Think of all the resources, financial and otherwise, currently stock-piled and stuck in bank accounts, portfolios, and locked vaults, frozen and unavailable to do the work of feeding, housing, clothing, educating and healing the world. What if those resources were freed, flowing like living water, meeting people’s needs?
So I asked Fannie Mae about the Endowment idea. She is not a fan. “Give people what they need Now,” she says adamantly. Why add to your bank account when people need so much right now? They should listen to the people with needs” she says.
At some point, we barter our passion for justice and desire to do good in exchange for financial security- our own or, in the case of nonprofit Boards, the organization’s. It becomes more important to ensure that ‘the work’ continues than to re-think the work itself, and creatively envision how best to use resources to end the need for services…. permanently. In our efforts to end poverty, are we supporting and perpetuating the bureaucracy that has been spawned to address it?
Is it important to save? Certainly. But exactly how much can we, ought we pack away and store up in our barns when the needs of the human family are so vast and immediate?
I don’t know what that point of barter is, but it’s a conversation worth having. Listen to Fannie Mae