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Friday, October 9, 2009

AFP Kaleidoscope Thought Leader Column: Fundraising through a Different Lens

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The following column was featured in the November 2009 issue of the Association of Fundraising Professionals' Kaleidoscope newsletter. To see the newsletter on their website, visit AFP Kaleidoscope (Online) and to become a member, visit Join AFP!

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People often ask me, “Where are you from?” I know what they are trying to ask, but most of the time I answer, “I’m from Wisconsin.” I was the first Chinese baby born at Beaver Dam Lutheran Hospital. At the time, our family was the only Asian family in Dodge County, Wis. As a child, like many minorities in small communities, I wanted nothing but to fit in. That experience made me adaptable, so I generally can find ways to connect with whatever culture I am in—except, ironically, the Chinese community. My family and I were so focused on fitting in that I received minimal exposure to Chinese traditions and norms.

When we interact with others one-to-one, it is usually easy to find things you have in common. Because of this natural inclination, we have focused on finding similarities among diverse communities as well: Where do we have common ground? How are we alike? While we need to build bridges and find those connections among communities, sometimes it feels as though we ignore the richness our differences offer.

For example, I have had the privilege of working with the Hopi Education Endowment Fund in Kykotsmovi, Ariz. (www.hopieducationfund.org), for several years. When we first started working together, we attempted to take western best practices in philanthropy and apply them to its situation. Some practices did translate well, such as most special-event strategies and direct mail. However, as we dove deeper into more complex strategies, highlighting cultural differences became the key.

When we attempted to start our planned-giving program, we initially looked at naming the program after a prominent Hopi leader who had just passed away. Culturally, planning for death is taboo among the Hopi. From what I had learned over the past few years, when you pass from this earth, those who survive are not to spend too much time mourning you, for that could block your passage into the next world. Naming a planned-giving club after this leader was not appropriate, and also raised concerns about the overall appropriateness of planned giving on Hopi in general. At one point, someone observed, “Planned giving won’t work on Hopi.”

Undeterred, we deconstructed the program: What were we trying to accomplish at the core of this? First, we wanted to provide a long-term source of funding for the organization. In addition, we wanted to offer people the option of transferring assets at a later date-and potentially give the organization a larger gift than they could afford from current cash. Those were the fundamentals, which apply to almost any planned giving program.

With those basics in mind, we requested the assistance of a Hopi language expert and started brainstorming about cultural aspects that might support our activities. After many months of discussion and reflection, a member of our committee brought forth the concept of “no’a.”

No’a has changed the way that I speak of planned giving, even when off reservation. No’a is how one generation passes valuable assets—knowledge, wealth or possessions—to the next. The elder carefully considers those around him or her and then selects a caretaker who will use the asset responsibly and share it with the community. By emphasizing this cultural norm, the fund has created “No’ayatiwqam: Those Who Have Given,” its planned-giving club that focuses on how the donor can select a responsible caretaker, such as the Hopi Education Endowment Fund, to continue to share assets with Hopi students for generations to come.

In a well-intentioned effort to break down barriers among diverse communities, we sometimes miss the color and depth that our differences can bring. As I have worked with other diverse communities, I have come to value my own cultural aspects more, and am starting to take steps toward bringing my family’s Chinese traditions into my philanthropy. By carefully analyzing philanthropic norms, finding the universal core concepts, and adding cultural strengths to these best practices, our profession will be able to make an even greater difference in the many unique communities that we serve.

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