American Fundraising: surprisingly different

Today I strolled down the streets of Down Town Chambersburg searching for donations for a live and silent auction benefiting therapeutic horseback riding in my local community.

It was hot and I felt like an ice cream melting away on the pavement every time I had to stop for a ‘don’t walk’, which was at least six times in one hour for the three blocks I was doing.

While I was going from shop to shop gaining my new American experience, the nuisance of professional media got to me again. Expat life does this to me every time I see that the reality of life in a certain country is always better portrayed in the media.

So, allow me to set something right in our believes about fundraising in America.

Unlike many Europeans think (and I thought so too), fundraising is not (only) about having a lesser social system than Europe. When I went round the shops I noticed that above all fundraising was about:

1. Geography – unless you have lived in America, it is impossible for a European to understand the size of the country. Local areas here work much harder to build and maintain a strong community. It is practical, functional and more reliable to have a strong social network locally. A meal donated from neighbors is arranged in a couple of hours for someone who is sick, just had a baby or is in mourning. Which health organization can beat that? And what’s more, there is no admin needed!

2. Culture – This is almost the strongest factor in fundraising. Giving back to community is something Americans learn at a very young age. They learn about it in their education from kindergarten onwards, as well as from adult behavior around them. Americans may be more spiritual than their European colleagues.

3. Perspective – Most Americans have a positive and forward looking perspective on life. They seem less critical or cynical than Europeans. Unlike Europeans, Americans say ‘yes’ without a ‘but …’ and they are not shy of awarding and rewarding other people’s efforts. This positive behavior is the much needed oil in any fundraising campaign.

4. Respect – every time I volunteer for an organization, Americans ask me what I would like to do – and something one likes to do is mostly something one is good at – and let me get on with it. I have felt more freedom to spread my wings and fly high than in any other job I have had in Europe. Once, when I lived as an expat and ambitious stay-at-home mom in Sweden, I voluntarily and successfully set up the Dutch Chamber of Commerce for West Sweden. Apparently this surprised the president (a corporate guy) so much that he asked me if my success was based on the fact that I had so much time as a house wife. I don’t think any American would treat a volunteer with this kind of disrespect. At that time I had an LL.M and nearly ten years of international experience in communications, from working for an advertising agency in Moscow to the European Commission in Brussels. My body may be negatively effected by having babies, my brains are certainly not!

5. Time is Money – In America I have learned that it is not always needed to put money in the system to make money. Peoples free time is worth as much as money. Volunteers in America may not be driving economy strictly speaking, but they certainly are driving society.

6. Social Human Nature – America may not get bonus points for their social system and I am not particularly happy with the sky high bills from doctors and dentists here, but a fully government funded system is perhaps not needed if you have people who are social by nature. I know you are thinking this is a classic ‘Chicken and Egg’ story, but I think it is the ‘Egg and Chicken’ story. This summer I spend most of my time with my family in The Netherlands and saw how too much government can cause an overkill in ‘governmental parenting’, making many individuals passive, unimaginative and less creative. In politics this is a dangerous way forward. A society with passive behavior is breading ground for populist speak, exactly like what is happening in Dutch politics just now.

What I notice most from living abroad is that humans are quite good at seeing things from a different perspective – if and when we want that is – but that we need to learn to be less critical in order to see that it is not all that bad on the other side of things. We need to be more open and let us be surprised by other cultures. If not, important information is lost.