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Church Chat: Wagner on the state of philanthropy in Adventist institutions

By Andreas Goelzer - Posted on 25 June 2009

.mt-image-right {margin:0px!important;}.mt-image-left {margin:0px!important;}.mt-image-right {margin:0px!important;}.mt-image-left {margin:0px!important;} .mt-image-right {margin:0px!important;}.mt-image-left {margin:0px!important;} Lilya Wagner directs Philanthropic Services for Institutions, an office of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America. [photo: courtesy PSI] Fundraiser Lilya Wagner dreads "those calls." A pastor phones to say his congregation just built a church and now he wants to know how to pay for it. Another caller wants to know how to reduce debt at a school on the brink of closing. In fact, too many calls, she says, show a lack of understanding about how and why to raise money."I don't think this is good use of God's resources or the intellect He's given us," says Wagner, director of the Seventh-day Adventist Church's Philanthropic Services for Institutions.First of all, she says, a significant number of Seventh-day Adventist institutions don't understand what "philanthropy" is. The word was nearly unheard of a few years ago. Today, it's commonplace, appearing regularly in the Wall Street Journal and People magazine. To boot, a new show premiered last night on NBC titled The Philanthropist. In 1973, PSI launched with the aim of promoting the profession of fundraising and making healthcare institutions more financially stable. Initially, its founder, Milton Murray, had a tough time convincing church leaders that the department was necessary. PSI has since expanded to offer assistance to any church organization in North America. Yesterday, PSI launched a revamped Web site to offer resources and training opportunities for fundraising.Wagner, originally from Estonia, is the author of several books on fundraising. She still works 25 percent of her time as a faculty member for the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, largely considered the nation's premier program for philanthropy. She holds a master's degree in journalism from the University of Nebraska, a master's of music from Andrews University and a doctorate in education.At the helm of PSI for a year now, Wagner recently granted an interview at her office at the church's North American headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. She discussed common misunderstandings about philanthropy and why pastors and church administrators need to understand why it should be a key part of a nonprofit organizational structure. Excerpts: Adventist News Network: What is philanthropy?Lilya Wagner: It's caring for others in a community. Unfortunately, too many people -- positively or negatively -- put the emphasis on the money. Fundraising is exciting for one major reason -- it's not about the money. It's about what the money will accomplish. If it's going to have one Adventist student go to a denominational school at any level; if it's going to provide mission services anywhere in the world; if it's going to help offer someone healthcare...that's what it's about. The money is just the price tag for something very valuable. ANN: How has giving been affected since the economic slide in October?Wagner: Data are mixed, but here are some generalizations: for the most part people haven't stopped giving, but they're giving less. Right now, some people are saying that 10,000 to 100,000 non-profits [in North America] will go under. Well we don't know that. What we do know is that those organizations that haven't had ongoing, sustainable fundraising programs that work are the ones that are the most vulnerable.ANN: What are some of your goals?Wagner: We'd like to increase the knowledge that pastors have about using resources wisely. I think [Adventists] have a good organization, a good system. But with anything good I believe the Lord gives us wisdom to take that which is best of the advances, such as technology. Also, we just completed a massive survey. A lot of organizations who could be our clients don't know we even exist. Hopefully, our new Web site will offer them information on resources, like our fundraising courses and conference.ANN: Several Adventist academies, and even a couple colleges, are struggling to survive. Is a strong philanthropic program the answer?Wagner: Let me answer that with one little cliché: Why would you put deck chairs on the Titanic? When you're going under is not the time to raise funds. That's why I keep talking about sustainable, ongoing, organizational context. That's not to say that fundraising couldn't rescue an organization. But how many fundraisers have been hung out to dry because an organization said, "Oops, we've got a debt," or "Oops, our major donor died," or "Our government funding died -- hire a fundraiser."ANN: So where does philanthropy fit within an organization?Wagner: It's very much intertwined with the functioning of the overall organization, both externally and internally. And there are organiations that realize that to be as excellent as we'd like to think Adventist organizations are, or can be, that they have to take these steps seriously. Fundraising is not a solo performance, it's very much being part of a choir. ANN: Does hiring a fundraiser pay for itself?Wagner: When you hire a faculty member, when you hire a PR person, you don't say "are they going to earn their salary?" It's part of the whole picture. What you're doing is diminishing the role and value of the fundraiser to the organization. You wouldn't say that to a financial officer. It's really totally unfair to see a fundraiser like that.ANN: Indiana University's Fund Raising School lists the "six rights." What are they?Wagner: The right person asking the right prospect for the right cause in the right way at the right time for the right amount.ANN: Who's the right type of person for a fundraising role?Wagner: Technically speaking, many people could learn to be good fundraisers. But I would like to see the church really get more professional people on board. Sometimes we're pulling in anybody who could possibly fit the bill.ANN: Isn't philanthropy already built into the church's tithe structure?Wagner: We sometimes say, "I gave my tithes and offerings, what more do you want?" Just about every religion I know has an expectation or even a mandate to be generous. Most Protestant denominations don't have a mandate but a very strong suggestion. I think that the matter of generosity, which Jesus certainly exemplified, is something that at times we don't take seriously enough.ANN: Where does the commitment to philanthropy start? Is it at the church's division level or the conferences or the seminary?Wagner: Everywhere. Certainly this office wouldn't have continued so long without the North American division's commitment. I think we still have plenty of room to grow with its awareness and the role it plays in the denomination. But the church, and even the rest of society has made progress. A few years ago philanthropy was unheard of. Now its got its own TV show.