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Why People Donate

For the past several weeks, I’ve been taking meditation and mindfulness classes at the Austin Zen Center. I started because of my interest in the neurological benefits of meditation, and stayed for the amazing people. It seems like every day I’m there, new ideas crop up about what mindfulness means within the context of social-emotional learning and how I can apply it to the Great Exchange. I’m especially interested in doing some research on mindfulness and Autism.

Anyway, while I came to the Zen Center prepared to experience epiphanies about the brain, myself, relationships, and our collective role as members of the same planet, I wasn’t prepared to hear the most concise explanation I’ve ever heard for why people donate to a charity or organization. One Saturday, after a meditation sitting and a Dharma Talk (a relatively nonsecular sermon about how we can become more compassionate) the Head Priest stood up to make some announcements. And at the end he asked, very humbly, for people to donate to the Zen Center if they had the means to do so. And he said something along the lines of, “I’m not saying this to get you to donate, but I’d like to point out how many people feel committed after giving a donation. And when you feel committed, you feel like you belong to that community.”

It was the softest “ask” I’ve ever heard, but the link from financial contribution to commitment to connection struck a chord with me, and I donated.

To raise money for a nonprofit, you combine a lot of storytelling with hard numbers; you’ll zoom in on one clear image of a person who was deeply impacted by your organization, and you’ll tell the story compassionately. People connect to this. You can then back your impact up with data, to prove that the one story isn’t an anomaly, and to infer that if you zoom out from there, you’ll hit many other data points that tell a similar story. That’s how we raise money, and we know this. But a more fundamental question to ask is, why does that work? And I think you’re selling the explanation short if you say that it simply appeals to a person’s emotions and moves them to act.

At the heart of the matter, I think, it’s that need to connect. People give because they want to be part of something; and if they donate to your nonprofit, then that “something” is your community. That’s really, really special. So in a way, your goal as a nonprofit organization isn’t just to help your clients heal and grow and learn; it’s to help your donors heal and grow and learn, too. Because we’re all just people and we all want to connect to each other.

At the end of a recent Thursday-night class at the Zen Center, my teacher read us this poem by Hafiz:

“Admit something:
Everyone you see, you say to them,
‘Love me.’
Of course you do not do this out loud;
Someone would call the cops.
Still though, think about this,
This great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one
Who lives with a full moon in each eye

That is always saying,
With that sweet moon
What every other eye in this world
Is dying to

I think it would be really revolutionary to let businesses and nonprofits start speaking that sweet moon language, too.


The Best Thing About Running a Startup? The Small Victories.

Donation thank-you

What I found when I was searching for "DIY greeting cards." Horrifying.

This morning, I:

  • Dragged myself out of bed while still trying to remember the fabulous dream I had about helping my family pick out a pet tiger from the Tiger Humane Society (usual)
  • Turned on the coffee pot before I had actually put coffee into it and consequently made a delicious pot of hot water (usual)
  • Checked my email; deleted the latest Groupon offer. Told myself, as I do every morning, that I should unsubscribe from Groupon but then did nothing about it (usual)
  • Opened a notification from Paypal that said…what? The Great Exchange received its first donation from a complete stranger? Unusual!

With any luck, in a few years this feeling won’t be unusual. But today, an attorney in Albany, New York gave the Great Exchange a small vote of confidence…and I haven’t felt this good since I found out I was going to Finland for free (another story for another time).

Do you remember how wonderful the world was when you were a child? Well, the Great Exchange is currently in its “child” phase, and nearly everything–from a bump in traffic on this blog to the smallest of donations–feels big and weird and awe-inspiring. Sure, in a few years The Great Exchange will be as old and wizened as a retired police cop (“I’ve seen it all in my day, kids”), but today, I am making a homemade greeting card for a man I don’t know who believes in disability rights and inclusion.

And then I’m redoubling my efforts to get fiscal sponsorship, and I’ll probably look into opening a Great Exchange bank account, and I need to create an on-the-fly donor management system.This donation is a great reminder of all the things I have left to do.

Zen and the Art of Grant Applications

I just sent off my first grant application! And I learned something very important in the process.

Well, it was technically an award application, but if I receive it, I’ll get $5,000 for The Great Exchange. I discovered the award within one day of the deadline, so the process of writing it was a five-hour, 11-page, mind like water experience of trying to reiterate my passion over and over in meaningful ways.

As I send off my heart, categorized and packaged into a strange, evaluator-friendly format, I’m a little surprised that I’m utterly empty of expectations. Of course I’d love to secure the first small chunk of The Great Exchange’s budget. Of course I would. But I’m simply not expecting to receive this grant, nor am I expecting not to.

I’m just happy that in a couple months, I won’t have to wonder about what would have happened, had I only submitted this application. I hate “what-if’s.” I hate them so much that every time I go to my favorite restaurant in Austin I try a new dish, despite knowing exactly what my favorite dish is.

Today, after this submission, more than feeling excited or nervous or hopeful, I feel content. I suppose you could call it the sheer enjoyment of eliminating a “what if.”

I’m glad I arrived at this feeling naturally, because it seems like a fairly profound way to avoid becoming defeated. I think the process of applying for grants will be much easier when I see each grant not as a make-it-or-break-it means to an end, but as another “what if” put to bed.

100 grants won or lost won’t be 100 grants won or lost; they’re just 100 ways in which I won’t have to wonder anymore.