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The majority of paper mail I get is from people asking me for money. Political candidates from every state, advocacy groups, seemingly every charity under the sun, museums, parks, orchestras, even religious groups. But probably the most surprising solicitation I’ve gotten to date was a letter from the U.S. Olympic Committee, asking me to give them money to support the American team. Since when are the Olympics a charity?
As politically engaged as I am, even I tend to tune out when groups send me a mailing every week, either with “action alerts” or “surveys” that are just thinly disguised pleas for cash. (As much good as the ACLU does, I really hate the way they bombard me with “Your membership is expiring!” letters seemingly at random.) Then there are the ones who send free stuff, usually address labels (I have a whole drawer-full by now) in the hope of making the recipients feel some obligation to reciprocate. I preplan my giving and never respond to this kind of gimmickry, as a rule; that’s why I get annoyed when I get them from organizations I generally support, because they’re wasting their postage.
All this is to say that I’ve been thinking about the role of money in building and supporting a secular infrastructure. Last month, I helped promote the SSA Week blogathon fundraiser, and this month, I’m doing another one for Camp Quest. I’ve also written about the Kiva atheist team and Foundation Beyond Belief many times. I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t believe these were all good causes that deserve our support. As I wrote at the beginning of SSA Week, we’re building infrastructure literally as fast as we can pour money into it, and whatever we invest now will pay dividends in increased political power, visibility and respectability for the atheist movement. Besides, we have some phenomenal talent working for us, and I want to see these people paid as their skills deserve.
But I realize that as a practical matter, there’s a limitless number of causes, while our ability to support them is decidedly not limitless. It’s easy to hit a point of diminishing returns. I’ve had requests from good groups, groups that I support and that work for worthy causes, to help them out with fundraisers, and I’ve turned them down because I don’t want to weary people’s patience with endless appeals for money. And besides, many of our supporters are students and young people, whose ability to give is especially limited.
Nevertheless, as hard as it is, as grubby as it can be, raising money is necessary. It may seem like a betrayal of our high ideals to spend so much time chasing it, but what money really is, is power – the power to get our message out to the public, to hire people to work for us and advocate for us, to get politicians to take us seriously, to defend ourselves in court where necessary. It’s not the only kind of power, but we can’t expect to succeed without it. Christians and other religious groups know this perfectly well, and we have to realize it too.
Personally, of all the groups I donate to, one of the best is the FFRF. Their fundraising is a short letter twice a year, listing their current projects and asking members to donate and to choose which ones they’d like to support. No cheap gimmicks, no overwrought language, no scaremongering: it’s an understated approach that respects the intelligence and maturity of its recipients. But for this to work, I imagine it requires a large, engaged donor base that can be counted upon to give reliably. I also like the Foundation Beyond Belief‘s approach, which makes giving regular and automatic.
To those people who can afford to give, I put it to you: How do you like to be asked for money? What kind of appeal is most likely to convince you to be a donor?