Mary and I sat in the outer suite of the CEO’s office, making small talk to cover for our mutual nervousness. As president of a Catholic high school, Mary was there to ask for a gift to the school’s capital campaign; I was riding shotgun.
With a Ph.D. in education and 20 years’ experience, Mary looked cool as a cucumber, save for a “poker tell” that only her closest associates had discovered: a blushing on the side of the neck, the kind people get when they’ve overexerted themselves.
The more we waited, the more it looked as though she had spent an entire Saturday in the Florida sun—and for good reason. The gentleman we were about to meet had a daughter at the school and we were there to ask him for a million dollars. Weeks earlier Mary and I did the math, and reluctantly concluded that without a gift of that magnitude the project just wouldn’t happen.
When the CEO finally saw us, he could not have been more gracious. He loved the school, the leadership and the project. But when asked for the gift, he smiled and explained that “I have three more people coming this morning to ask me for $1,000,000.”
Even for someone with 30 years’ experience in fundraising, his simple honesty was a wakeup call. I’ve since calculated the number of charities seeking such gifts relative to those who can make them. It is a ratio of about 30:1. Those are tough odds, but charities focus on a few key people because without them no expansion project would ever see the light of day. The entire physical infrastructure of the so-called ‘third sector’ would not exist without the lead gifts that make major projects possible.
I wish more people understood this.
Instead, it has become fashionable, especially among young adults, to speak in derogatory terms about the very people who built their universities, provided their college scholarships and endowed their professors’ positions. How did we get here?
The blame rests in the continued secularization of American culture. Reason, devoid of faith, leads to a puffed-up intellectualism quick to judge everyone but oneself.
In contrast, the spiritual life begins with the practice of humility. Say what you want about “Catholic guilt,” it has its place: virtue and vice are best understood when studied in the first-person. It’s the starting point of personal conversion.
Christian humility also informs the intellect. The speck in the other’s eye becomes abundantly clear only when you’ve first removed your own. Having honestly confronted one’s own sinfulness, humble souls are rewarded with a wider understanding of human nature.
But self-examination is not a pleasant task. Without the promptings of Scripture or a preacher, the secularist is never called to examine his own motivations. This impoverishes not only his soul, but his intellect— leading him to a false conclusion: If one is wealthy, the assumption is that he must be greedy. Therefore it’s OK to disparage him.
I find this shallow and irritating. If the secularist had an ounce of spiritual insight, he would know that greed has nothing to do with one’s pocketbook. It’s a matter of the heart. I’ve met plenty of middle-class people who were greedy; they just lacked the skills to exercise their vice with any degree of success.
In the final analysis, the assumption that wealth correlates with greed is just another form of prejudice. Sadly, in a secularist culture this trendy attitude won’t change any time soon.
Yet, despite the unjust rhetoric, the people who “make things happen” continue to give. I count them among America’s unsung heroes.