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How We Engage With Nonprofits: Is It A Matter Of Faith?

 

 

I was first introduced to the concepts of "high church" and "low church" as a seminarian. These are helpful theological frameworks that link the methods and modalities of Christian faith with one's view of the church, and ultimately of God.

 

For starters, designations of "high" and "low" are not meant to elevate or diminish one when compared with the other. Rather, it is a way to explain two very different oriented views that truly inform a person's practice of faith. To make this easier to grasp, I'll take my liberties and switch "vertical" for "high" and "horizontal" for "low."

 

Those who embrace vertical faith believe the church mirrors the transcendence of God (that's the "high"). Consequently, they formulate structured worship liturgies that lift the eyes of faith upward. They emphasize the sacred. And they uphold the mediating function of the sacraments, priests and clergy. Think historical and mainline churches. Generally meeting in more traditional houses of worship. With tall steeples and stained-glass windows. It's about awe. And order.

 

In contrast, those who hold horizontal faith stress how the church reflects the nearness of God (that's the "low"). God, down here, with us. In our hearts. As such, they tend to be free-form in worship, value relevance, and place great importance on individual piety. Think congregational, evangelical and non-denominational churches. Probably meeting in less formal houses of worship. With large video screens flanking the platform and a complex sound and lighting system enveloping the sanctuary. It's about God. And me. And you.

 

I brought these theological concepts with me as I began an almost twenty year mission of professional fundraising. Blame it on my bias, but in my work I started noticing how people of faith who hold these two divergent views---vertical and horizontal---actually engage differently with nonprofits.

 

Here's what I observed.

 

Vertical believers are generally structured donors. So they tend to appreciate the evidence of structure in a nonprofit organization. For many, this is a litmus test of sorts. A prerequisite before they engage with a charity. When considering making a donation, they often begin with a formulated series of related questions. What is your case for mission? Is it based on a thorough needs assessment? How will you specifically address this need? Is there a framework in place to operate your services? Are the elements and components based on best principles, practices and polity? On and on. Remember, order is next to godliness.

 

Vertical believers also assign a segmented nature to nonprofit work. Since hierarchy is holy, they designate it as a separate function of society. In other words, social sector organizations are "set apart" to perform a specialized service in the community on behalf of the community. These entities become mediators of generosity, stewards of the public trust. No wonder that vertical believers expect exemplary ethics, empathy and ethos from social sector stewards. In fact, they often expect these nonprofits to exceed their expectations.

 

On the other hand, horizontal believers seem to be more pedestrian, street-level donors. They want to see nonprofit work up close and personal. Get in there and get their hands dirty in the process. And when the Spirit moves them, watch out and get out of their way. Horizontal believers are doers more than thinkers. They value immediate, tangible, accessible engagement with the charity. They have little time for and little interest in navigating documentation and multi-leveled systems in order to express their generosity. Because of the urgent need that needs to be met, they extend a lot of slack and leeway to nonprofits. And, as donors, they expect the same in return.

 

What matters most to horizontal believers is impacting lives in the moment. In the now. In the present. If they can see, touch, smell, taste and hear the impact of their generosity, they're all in. That's why "social sector" vernacular may not translate well for these folks. Horizontal believers do not see philanthropy as a segmented function of society. Instead, it is a function of their hearts. More often than not, their sentimental and spiritual impulses overwhelm the logic, reason and, sometimes, the intellect of their giving.

 

I'm making generalizations here. Indeed, there are exceptional exceptions in both flocks. Renegade and unrestrained vertical believers who support nonprofits with random generosity. Who engage with reckless joy and abandon. And I've met my share of the horizontal faithful who have come to their senses. Have learned to give between the lines and stick to nonprofit rules of engagement. Religiously so.

 

I share these conjectures only from and for my familiar circle of faith traditions. There are many other religious and belief systems functioning in society. With adherents who have intricate theological or philosophical frameworks from which advocacy, volunteerism and generosity is extended and expressed. It is better to hear their conjectures from and for their perspectives regarding this subject.

 

I offer all of this up to spark intentional thinking about the possible correlation. How all of these matters of faith and belief may actually inform, instruct and influence philanthropic engagement should stir the curiosity and calculations of nonprofit, charitable and social sector organizations. For heaven's sake. For an organization's sake. For the donors' sake. High, low, vertical, horizontal, diagonal or whatever for that matter. Because, my hunch is, it probably does matter.

 

 

 

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