From Risk to Resiliency: A New Philanthropic Paradigm

“The oak fought the wind and was broken, the willow bent when it must and survived.”

Robert Jordan

In 1995, 168 people were killed and over 850 were injured when Timothy McVeigh’s 4,000-pound truck bomb exploded and destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. In the parking lot stood another victim– an American elm. Astonishingly, unlike many of employees, the stout 80-year old tree weathered the blast, becoming a symbol of national strength and resiliency. In fact, seedlings from the Oklahoma “Survivor Tree” are currently available for purchase from the American Forest Historic Tree program.

Resilience, in its most narrow technical sense, refers to the distinct psychological traits of children who develop social competence despite exposure to the severe stress of high-risk family and environmental conditions. Astoundingly, numerous longitudinal studies have concluded that nearly 70% of such youngsters have the pliability to overcome the difficulties associated with mentally ill, alcoholic, abusive, criminal, and/or poverty-stricken parents to lead successful lives. Like the Oklahoma elm tree, these resilient broods efficaciously weather the impact of physical, emotional, and intellectual explosions into healthy maturity.

The concept of resiliency should not be restricted to dendrological concerns or to the nagging problems confronting at-risk youth growing up in high-risk conditions. On the contrary, the identifiable characteristics of “resiliency” should similarly be brought to bear on the philanthropic paradigms of religious and non-profit entities that currently face the intensity of adverse risks associated with hostile societal and economic environs.

Child, family, and community development experts (Kobasa, 1979; Maston, 1994; Schorr, 1988; Werner & Smith, 1992) refer to the aforementioned characteristics as “protective factors” that have the capacity to alter, and sometimes reverse, the potential negatives of adverse environments. Religious and non-profit organizations might, therefore, earnestly consider measuring the amplitude of their resilience and, if found lacking, incorporate these traits within their respective pastoral and fund-raising operational models.  Rather than reactively employ defensive budget-cutting measures to weather unfavorable societal and economic circumstances, a resiliency-based philanthropic paradigm may actually provide the differentiation between survival, mediocrity, and/or institutional demise.

Research has identified four primary traits commonly found in resilient survivors: (a) social competence, (b) the ability to problem-solve, (c) self-efficacy, and (d) a sense of faith. In the final analysis, resilience is the capacity to “bounce-back,” to self-right, transform and change, all of which emerge from a healthy sense of useful self-purpose. Consequently, resiliency can be strengthened by developing a vigorous sense of self-worth that is predicated on the opportunity to serve the needs of others.

Numerous explorations (Barna; Pew; Stamford) support the view that organizations that distinguish themselves as possessing high-level quotients of volunteer competence and service to others also exhibit advanced levels of membership growth, retention, and mature fundraising capacities. Conversely, religious, non-profit, and other philanthropic institutions that do not ensure detailed protocols for personal engagement and development frequently suffer dangerous intensities of underperformance, member dissatisfaction, apathy, and budgetary shortfalls! Unfortunately, when compounded by simplistic risk-averse remedies, fundraising stalls and the societal impact of such organizations gradually diminishes.

The Giving USA Report (2012), compiled by the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy, cites a number of disturbing statistics. For example, while charitable donations rose 4% in 2011, individual donations to churches and religious bodies dropped by nearly 2%. Although religious entities received 53% of all charitable donations in 1985, by 2007 the rate fell to only 33%. Startlingly, people are now giving a lower percent of their income to churches than they did in the 1920’s or the Great Depression.

According to the US Congregations Life Survey (2008-9), half of American worshipers regularly give 5% or more of their net income to their local religious congregation. When invited to indicate the factors that predispose their financial decision, 49% of survey respondents specified that a “sense of gratitude for God’s goodness” was a major influence. However, when the desire to more “personally contribute” to God’s Work (38%) is linked with the corresponding volunteer-based aspiration of “supporting local ministries” (27%) the influence of resiliency significantly rises to over 65%!

Ten Most Influencing Factors on Christian Giving

A “major influence” Response
  1. A sense of gratitude for God’s love and goodness
  1. A desire to personally contribute to God’s work
  1. A religious duty to make a societal difference
  1. The Bible’s teaching on giving
  1. A sense of obligation to support local ministries
  1. Hearing about specific needs
  1. A sense of gratitude for help previously received
  1. Habit or custom
  1. The request/urge by parish or leader to give
  1. The tax benefits

The data is compelling! Religious, non-profit, and other philanthropic institutions will thrive if and only when their respective constituents are encouraged to actively participate in the advancement of the organization’s mission. According to results of a nationwide Gallup Church Study, the level of “engagement” among congregations is of “key importance.” Congregations with fewer ministries and committees were the “most likely” to financially struggle. Members must, therefore, be inspired to risk and engage and not to remain safely off-stage! The emphasis should be on volunteerism and the widespread societal effects of personal service, and not only on the increase of financial support of self-serving parochial programs.

Accordingly, prudent leaders of religious and philanthropic institutions might consider using the aforementioned Life Survey data to refine the resiliency levels of their respective mission, thereby increasing the scale of their impact. Ironically, the drive for such resiliency is not based on applying risk mitigation strategies but on pervasively conveying the positive message of distinct engagement. Resilient organizations do not highlight problems and deficits, but highlight the powerful impetus of their highly engaged volunteers. The fostering of such resilience, however, must operate at a deep structural and human level that is not hierarchical, nor overly horizontal, but firmly established on systemic accountabilities and conciliar underpinnings.

If religious communities and philanthropic leaders honestly desire the development of such robust egalitarian operating systems they must diligently provide on-going opportunities for voice, meaningful participation, and valued contribution from their constituencies. Methods should, therefore, be employed during the current volatile financial environment that provide constituents a sense that their contributions are valued and that their action will, indeed, make a societal difference. More specifically, religious leaders should highlight the specific ways that personal service and monetary gifts change lives and positively impact the greater community.

In his book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back (2012), Andrew Zolli, illustrates how “preserving adaptive capacity—the ability to adapt to changed circumstances while fulfilling one’s core purpose—is an essential skill in an age of unforeseeable disruption and volatility.” While the executive director of the global innovation network PopTech insists that resilience is “context specific,” Zolli defines the ability to bounce back as “the capacity of a system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.”

Zolli’s prescription for dealing with negative circumstances is as applicable to religious and philanthropic entities as it is to individuals. While not a magic silver bullet, Churches might consider the value of cultivating such a “resilient mindset” by continuously refreshing and re-aligning their core mission principles to their ever-changing circumstances. In so doing, religious communities would positively reduce the fear associated with the economic, moral, and societal difficulties they currently confront. By continually redesigning their agendas through innovation and spirit-based creativity, philanthropic leaders would, in fact, be refining the capacity of their constituents and ministerial systems to more successfully weather the negative force of future disruptions.

No one expected the old Oklahoma elm tree to survive McVeigh’s 4,000-pound bomb blast. In fact, no one gave any thought to the branch-stripped tree covered in ash and debris. But then it began to bud. Young sprouts pressed through damaged bark, and green leaves pushed away the blanket of gray soot. People noticed as life resurrected from an acre of death and destruction. In the end, the tree demonstrated the resilience the victims desired.

The “Survivor Tree” currently stands as a beacon of encouragement in the Oklahoma City National Memorial casting the influence of its resiliency upon an often dark and gloomy world. A placard at the tree’s base proudly declaims: “The spirit of this city and this nation will not be defeated – our deeply rooted faith sustains us.”

The development of such resiliency is not the result of a weekend stewardship workshop or a seasonal fund-raising campaign.  It is based on a life-long dynamic process of healthy human development wherein personality and environmental influences interact in a respectful and reciprocal transactional relationship. It is firmly rooted in the ability to adapt and bounce back when threatening circumstances emerge. Resilient leaders do not fear change.  Nor do they wallow in failure but learn from their mistakes, and emerge stronger and wiser. Resilient organizations are efficacious because they seek to honestly meet humanity’s basic human need for love, connectedness, respect, and meaningful involvement. Only through the power of such engagement can at-risk organizations and individuals discover their life’s purpose.

Disruptive change is a clarion call for developing the power of resiliency! Society’s ever-changing status quo demands a “spirit of resilient thinking” that does not fear the prospect of adjusting personal, professional and parochial paradigms to overcome risk! Only when the conditions of critical inquiry, dialogue, reflection, and action are valued and cultivated, however, can the influence of resiliency unfold the innate potential, identity and efficacy of institutional capacity. In the end, when the blast of adversity does strike – as it most surely will – the resilience of such a philanthropic paradigm will provide the vital vigor to survive – and, like the Murrah Elm – to blossom!

Dr. Frank Marangos is CEO and Founder of OINOS Educational Consulting. He received a Doctors Degree in Adult Education (Ed.D.) from NOVA Southeastern University (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) and a Doctorate in Ministry and Childhood Education (D.Min.) from Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX). He is also a Certified Charitable Estate Planner (FCEP).

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