9.13 Dear Kim: Seeking Separation of Church and Donation

Dear Kim:

The chair of our board, Susan, recently introduced me to her elderly aunt, who is interested in our organization’s work. She is a lovely person, and in our second meeting, Susan asked her if she would make a lead gift to a new program we had been discussing.  She said she would be delighted, and so we were delighted.  But then, just as our meeting was ending and we were walking out the door, she asked me, “Does your staff go to church regularly?” Before I could answer at all, her niece grabbed my arm, and said, I’m so sorry, Aunt Martha, but I have got to pick up Anthony at day care.  We’ll talk more soon.”  We flew down the porch and into her car and drove off.  Susan said, “I am so sorry she asked that. I hope she forgets about it.”  We then talked about some other board business and didn’t mention the question again.  I need to meet with this donor next week, and am afraid she will bring up this question again.  I do go to church, but our executive director is an atheist, and the two program staff who will run the program are Jewish. One is religious and one is not. What should I do to avoid this question?

~Seeking Separation of Church and Donation

Dear Separation:

What you need to separate is your fevered imagination from this question.  There is an old Quaker saying, “Assume good intent.” You have no idea what the donor wants to know when she asks if you and other staff go to church. Perhaps she is just making conversation and in her circle of friends, this is a common question. If she asks you at your next meeting, answer whatever is true, and ask her if she is involved in a church. You might be surprised when she answers, “I’m an Episcopalian. I think churches and synagogues might be interested in this program, and some of them might be able to provide some money and volunteers. Perhaps one of the program people can talk to my women’s group and to their own religious groups once the program is up and running.” From your brief description of the meeting where she made the gift, she gave without putting any religious conditions on the donation. When we are anxious we have a tendency to make up motivations for people, but in the clear light of day, we can often see that we have no evidence for our concern. The worst-case scenario is that she won’t give unless everyone in the organization is a church-going Christian, and if that is true, you will have to politely turn down her gift. Try honesty.  It will save everyone a lot of time.

~Kim Klein

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