TrueSense Marketing  ●  3/6/2020

Fundraising’s Historical and Religious Roots

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Fundraising is nothing new.

We humans are socially and culturally hardwired for charity. In fact, our philanthropic roots go back to prehistory. Records going as far back as 2,500 BC describe the Hebrews using a mandatory tax to benefit the poor.

Virtually every religion in the world today contains principles that obligate practitioners to charity. Certainly, the big three in the Western Hemisphere — Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — are rooted in a common history and explicitly call on their followers to help those less fortunate.

  • Zakat (charity) is the Third Pillar of Islam. The Quran recognizes both zakat (obligatory charity, similar to tithing) and sadaqah (voluntary charity) and quotes the Prophet: “Your smile for your brother is a charity. Your removal of stones, thorns, or bones from the paths of people is a charity. Your guidance of a person who is lost is a charity.” (Bukhari)
  • Tzedakah is a core principle of Judaism. It dictates giving aid, assistance, and money to those in need, and it includes a sense of righteousness and justice in its rationale. Interestingly, Judaism teaches that donors benefit from the act of tzedakah. Presumably, this was meant in a spiritual sense, but it is now a physiological truth confirmed by research. Scientists have measured the burst of oxytocin, the body’s “feel good” hormone, that occurs in the brain subsequent to an act of charity.
  • And of course, the Gospels of Christianity abound with accounts of Jesus ministering to the poorest and neediest in society. Aside from assuring the downtrodden they are treasures in God’s eyes, Christ exhorts those who seek to follow him to “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” rather than here on earth. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:20-21)

It is not hard to see that charity, as a core pillar in virtually every human belief system, must be present in societies for fundraising to flourish. Lucky for the human race, especially today, its essence remains intact in the majority of the world’s cultures.

Note: The word “philanthropy” is of Greek origin and first appeared in Prometheus Bound, an Ancient Greek play attributed to Aeschylus. Plato’s Academy was formed in 387 BC to serve the poor.


Fundraising’s Historical and Religious Roots

Strategies and tactics around fundraising are almost as ancient as the concept of charity itself. Consider this example:

Some of Europe’s greatest cathedrals rose from the ashes of disaster, and many were, for the most part, publicly funded. Furthermore, the people of medieval Europe were never more inclined to contribute to these projects than in the aftermath of war, famine, or plague. What drove this civic generosity? A sense of compassion? Not likely.

Under the sway of medieval bishops and popes, certain basic human behaviors were easily manipulated to spur public philanthropy. In the wake of the plague, for instance, generosity could be stimulated by encouraging a sense of salvation and gratitude for having survived. Today, we would credit that behavior to the principle of reciprocity: “You saved us, Lord; now we owe you one.”

It was probably also easy to incite an angry response to Satan, who the bishops might have contended foisted this disaster on mankind. Or perhaps it was guilt. “We as a society were sinful and paid the price. Time to convince the Lord we deserve a second chance.”

But to a greater degree, giving was probably most easily achieved by instilling fear that it might all happen again. A nervous public might seek some heavenly insurance against future catastrophe, and a cathedral in the town square just might do the trick.

Fear, anger, greed, guilt, salvation, gratitude, reciprocity. Do any of these motivations sound familiar? Modern fundraising professionals lean on these every day to promote giving.

Fundraising might be defined as the intentional practice of leveraging people’s natural inclination to give — to help the needy, to address injustice, or (in the case of the cathedral in the town square) to improve society. It has a long, rich history, and many of its guiding principles are as relevant today as they were centuries ago.


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