Being There

Friends and co-workers know me for a white-knuckle flier.  Like Erica Jong’s character in Fear of Flying, I’m convinced the only thing keeping the plane aloft is the energy borne of my constant state of terror.

Despite my fear, I have often joked that our statewide foundation should purchase a helicopter.  Why?  I believe strongly in the power of “being there.”  Of meeting face to face.  In my book, there is simply no substitute for that personal connection. 

At the North Carolina Community Foundation, our statewide scope means we travel a lot.  There’s nothing like a day trip from Raleigh to Sylva and back to remind one that it’s a BIG state.  And like any other business in these times of downsized budgets, we are constantly seeking ways to be more efficient with our travel dollars. 

Conference calls, webinars, e-mails, Skype – technology has made it possible to connect in so many different ways and formats.  And don’t get me wrong — these new tools offer quick, powerful and often low-cost ways to communicate.   They have revolutionized our ability to contact more people, in more ways and more often.

But what’s lost here?  Whether it’s engaging a donor, conducting a training session, or presenting to a community organization, there is simply nothing more powerful than the real-life, real-time, person-to-person interaction. 

In the realm of charitable giving, it’s a truism that donors give more when asked in person.  A recent study conducted by Indiana University found that “donors who were asked to give in person by someone they knew donated 19% more when compared with telephone, mail or e-mail requests.”  Fundraising author Laura Fredericks concurs, noting that “it is important that you do your asks of individuals in person.  People give to people; they do not give to paper.” (The Ask, 2006)

To paraphrase a political slogan, “It’s the relationship, stupid.”  And building these demands personal, in-the-flesh engagement. 

To illustrate, I recently held the hand of a 100-year-old donor as she described her father’s artwork and the fund she has established for the museum wherein it is displayed.  Both eyesight and hearing have failed her, and simply being there to listen was my only way of reaching her.  Her amazing and profoundly touching stories will enliven our work with this fund for many years to come. 

There’s simply an immeasurable magic that happens in a face-to-face meeting.  Face to face, there is an exchange that illuminates, connects, inspires, deepens understanding and builds trust.  In person, we gain and transmit passion, persuade and communicate our message in the most powerful way possible. 

In a larger sense, it’s our very “being there” that distinguishes us from the plain commercial charities.  We maintain that our core role is to grow philanthropy among North Carolina’s communities.  And especially in our rural context, that requires a frequent, on-the-ground presence.  Folks want to see the cut of our jib, and to measure our ability to relate to the culture, needs and customs of their community.  For a community foundation, being available, visible and accessible are tacit responsibilities that go with the very name.  Engaging personally with others, we swap experiences and insights, stimulate learning and problem-solving, and discover shared values.   

It’s tempting, of course, to forego all the trouble.  Getting from place to place requires energy, time and money.  Yes, I know.  Dollars.  And the “new economy” requires that we strike a practical balance.  Can we craft a complete endowment agreement by e-mail?  Well, sure.  But funds so established threaten to become mere transactions.  The human element that makes our work so compelling and powerful is lost.  We miss the stories, the vitality, the rich history.  We fail to capture the motivations behind the gift.  In short, we ourselves risk becoming what one writer dubbed “passive salesmen for charity.”

And so we continue to slip on our driving mocs and hit the road.  Meeting our donors face to face, convening in person with local boards and non-profits, and learning first-hand their needs, challenges and opportunities   For those of us who believe strongly that THIS is what it means to be a true community foundation, anything less is merely a cold call.