Recently, I had lunch with a colleague who works for an organization that serves low-income children. She talked about a new wrinkle: prospective donors want to direct their gifts to serve a particular child, whose name they would know and story they would be able to follow.

I immediately thought…just like pagan babies!

A long time ago, I went to Catholic school in the suburbs of New York City. Throughout my elementary school career, there was a weekly collection for the foreign missionaries. You would bring in your grubby little pennies and nickels, saved from your allowance, and put them in the basket that passed through the classroom.

It was a matter of enormous excitement and grade-level pride when the cumulative take of the weekly collection reached a multiple of five dollars, the price of a pagan baby.  The Student of the Week had the honor of choosing a sticker--perhaps an adorable fat-cheeked toddler with straight black hair and slanted eyes or maybe a beautiful ebony-skinned baby with liquid eyes and crinkly hair--to affix to the full-color poster of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the back wall of the classroom.  The entire class voted on the name that our baby would be christened.

I distinctly remember having no doubt whatsoever that in due course--we were unclear how long it would take our five dollars to travel from Harrington Park, New Jersey to deepest darkest Africa--a baby would be baptized Deirdre, in a ceremony just like the ones I’d attended for my younger siblings. Or somewhere in the bowels of rural China somebody would become a Kevin...all because of us!

I kid you not.

The scenario my friend is considering may well founder on the shoals of practical impossibility. But I have a feeling that variations on this theme will continue to bubble up. And there’s something in this idea that makes me wince the same way my memories of pagan babies do.

I get it. Donor-centered fundraising is a must. Storytelling is how we make meaning. And how awesome is it to have donors who propose from the get-go to support your work over multiple years?

But this proposal strikes me as boggy ground indeed.

Imagine this: you connect with my friend’s organization in 2014 and direct that all of your gifts benefit José, a cute-as-a-button eight year old who has had some struggles in school but is cheerful and sweet and is trying very hard.

What happens if things go south? Jump ahead five years and José is now less attractive: pimply and sullen, his academic struggles even worse than before and now accompanied by behaviors that get him sent to the principal’s office on an alarmingly regular basis. Do you conclude that your support of the organization over the previous five years has been for naught?

Or what happens when things go well—even really really well? José does absolutely brilliantly. Through some miracle of genetics, he dodges the acne bullet and remains thoroughly attractive throughout adolescence. His learning differences resolve and he is regularly on his middle school’s honor roll. Do you pat yourself on the back and feel a sense of accomplishment that you have made a real difference in the world?


Yes, donors should be at the center. But their relationship with the nonprofit needs to be mutual: through Charity XYZ Mrs. Smith can help make the change in the world she wants to see. When Mrs. Smith stipulates that all of her money must support an individual child, something shifts. Suddenly Charity XYZ becomes a personal vehicle for Mrs. Smith’s beneficence rather than a channel for philanthropy. The mode of the gift diminishes both the partnership and the partners.

And, really. Aren’t we all grown ups here? Yes, tales of the changes wrought in individual lives will always be our greatest source of inspiration. But mature philanthropists, who realize they are part of a solution supported by many, can feel their hearts warmed by these stories without having to own one of them.

Not even ten-year-olds buy that pagan baby fantasy these days.


AuthorBarbara Stevenson