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By Nancy Slavin, development and grants officer

A good Christian foundation is also hard to find.

I might as well start this essay about Christian foundations with a confession: I am pretty darn uncomfortable working as a fundraiser at religiously-affiliated nonprofit.

For most of my 20+-year career in nonprofits, I have been a violence-prevention educator, mostly for a private, rural, feminist organization. I spent years facilitating groups and trainings about the dynamics of domestic violence and intersectional oppression in order to prevent interpersonal harm and public bullying.

So, while working full-time as a fundraising professional is new to me, I do know a lot about the nuances of power and control. And frankly, nonprofits look to me like a wife who can’t escape a toxic marriage. The husband in question: Christian foundations.

I remember hearing the story from a client about a violent man who, with his left hand, held his marriage certificate over his wife’s head while he pressed his right forearm against her neck. Her back was literally against the wall as he reminded her, with a growl, of her “Christian duty to obey” him. That story sticks with me not only because of the physical pain and emotional terror, but also the spiritual violence: the act of using her religion against her to justify his assertion of power and control.

I’d posit that nonprofits are in a relationship with similar dynamics when it comes to private foundations. Not all foundations, mind you, just like how not all people in relationships choose abuse, but we are, indeed, talking about choices here. And while, yes, we as fundraisers can choose foundations, the saying does go: “A good man is hard to find.”

A good Christian foundation is also hard to find.

And unfortunately, we nonprofits often have our backs against the wall, with foundations who hold all the power pressing their will against our necks.

Importantly, just like with domestic violence, the nonprofits that live most on the margins — that is, those led and populated by Black, Indigenous, people of color, as well as disabled, queer, poor, young adults, and immigrants — are most likely to be ignored, shut out of, not helped by, and disbelieved by ‘the system.’

Police, district attorneys, and child welfare workers often overlook and judge individuals who do not ‘look’ or ‘act’ like victims of domestic violence. Likewise, research shows that foundations overlook, deny, or make restrictions on funds for BIPOC-led nonprofits.

Empowerment and empathy instead of power and control

If you are a Christian foundation trustee or grants manager, it is high time to reckon with your personal gods and look at what choices you make in relationships with your grantees.

When it comes to power and control, those with the most power have the most onus to change their behavior, policies, and system. I’d argue that of all categories of foundations, Christian foundations have the most work to do.

People who use power and control in their relationships often seem to be taking notes from the same playbook (here’s a wheel that sections out most of their ploys). Using religion in this way, Christianity specifically, is a form of emotional abuse. This kind of power and control is most ironic coming from a religion stemming from Jesus Christ, a radical servant who gave up his material possessions, and who said, “I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me” (Matthew 25:43).

I realize that we nonprofits could simply choose not to apply to religion-based foundations and opt out of this system, but this avoidant solution does nothing to change the system.

In my former job, I used to facilitate an activity in response to the age-old question: “Why doesn’t she just leave?”

I’d say, “Okay, let’s discuss why she doesn’t just leave — give me some answers to that question; however, you may only use words that begin with the letter F.”

Participants would think for a while, and then the brainstorm would begin.

“Fear,” someone would say, and others, catching on, would blurt out, “family,” and “friends.”

“Well, done,” I’d say, encouraging the group. “And what else?”

More thoughtfulness, more searching. “Finances,” someone would say, and then, “faith,” and finally, “fatigue.”

“See,” I’d say. “You came up with all of those reasons, most of which aren’t even based around physical violence, but all of which keep her from leaving.”

Solutions are a balance of reflection and action

What would Jesus do? Would he stand by and wait for people to finish their hand-wringing while his beloveds fall off a cliff and die of pandemics at disproportionate rates? Or would he call the hand-wringers into deeper love and quicker action?

Honestly, between my atheist-Jewish father and my Lutheran mother, I grew up in a vortex of religion. Our traditions had to do far more with food and family than with scripture or services. Our mom did ‘make’ me and my siblings go to a Christian confirmation school, but most of what I remember from that junior high era are my friends’ bat and bar mitzvahs, because they involved dancing.

Little did I know back then, our government, which purportedly believed in the separation between church and state, passed laws that allowed even religion-based foundations to become lawful tax shelters through The Tax Reform Act of 1981.

If you are a Christian foundation trustee or grants manager, it is high time to reckon with your personal gods and look at what choices you make in relationships with your grantees. How does fear get mixed up with faith? How does fatigue keep us from being friends? Can you look at how your God-given gift of free will can be used in honor of your savior, the one who gave up all his material gifts, to be in service to God’s love?

All organizations, nonprofits, and foundations alike, have to reckon in this moment with our historical accumulations of wealth. There are few American organizations that have acquired their money without exploitation, oppression, and genocide. Even though recent U.S. democratic processes can give us hope, those histories of power and control are still not reconciled. Relationships built on power and control can heal if those who have the most power learn to give it up by choice.

I am calling Christian foundation people and donors in — because people who generally got their wealth off the genocide of Indigenous people, the labor of Black, Brown, and immigrant people, and the extraction of resources from Mother Earth — these people are the very ones who need to have their come-to-Jesus moment sooner, faster, and better.

Many Christian-based groups, like Jesuits West, for example, are showing their love and faith by doing acts of justice in public. But are the private foundations affiliated with those religious groups doing the same kinds of actions? How are you building toolkits, ease of access, and transparency into your foundation to help your donors and grant seekers alike?

There are so many things you can do.

For starters, you can open up and make public your application processes. You can reimagine how Jesus would feed the five-thousand these days. (I’m guessing it wouldn’t be with a closed, privatized application process for which you only invite in selected grantees.)

You don’t have to wait for the government to tell you to release emergency funds, and you don’t have to give out only the mandated 5 percent. By-laws can be amended and models of other foundations paying down their endowments already exist.

I know the counter-argument to spending down endowments is there won’t be enough funds to address future problems — however, have you looked outside?

We do not have a lot of time to get to true equity. The West is on fire, the Gulf Coast is sinking underwater, and the ice shelves are melting at a rate as fast as you can say donor advised funds.

The very people most nonprofits serve are the people most affected by climate change and social inequity. What would Jesus do? Would he stand by and wait for people to finish their hand-wringing while his beloveds fall off a cliff and die of pandemics at disproportionate rates? Or would he call the hand-wringers into deeper love and quicker action?

I had to quit watching “The Handmaid’s Tale” in season one

We can, as the Jesuits say, think about another Latin term, cura personalis. Care for the whole person and listen deeply to people most impacted by inequity and violence.

I’m not living in a hole. I realize a number of purportedly Christian foundations actually support total power and control. I also realize many Christian-identifying donors have specific beliefs that are antithetical to equity.

I had the unfortunate experience of fielding a donor call from a longtime supporter of our nonprofit who said we were “almost promoting” LGBTQIA2S+ individuals and listening too much to the youth of today. She was not interested in hearing about the violence of her choices — she hung up on me and withdrew her funds.

To my organization’s credit, we moved right on by, but I’m not going to tell you that phone call didn’t sting my heart, the heart with which Jesus asks me to love unconditionally. In that moment, I felt heartbroken by power and control. My back was against the wall.

But, I can assure you, based on experience from my years working in domestic violence: If we release our power and control over wealth and the barriers to access it, we simultaneously let go of the shame of our history and our past sins of violence. By acknowledging harm through accountability and reparations, we can be bold, brave leaders in the name of a Christ, who lived simply, who washed the feet of his disciples to demonstrate his humility, and who understood that the word obey comes from the Latin oboedīre, which means “to listen to.”

We can, as the Jesuits say, think about another Latin term, cura personalis. Care for the whole person and listen deeply to people most impacted by inequity and violence.

Back at the women’s center, I maintained that our goal should be to work ourselves out of a job, into a full-service healing spa — because once the community comes together in a collaborative, coordinated way, the violence will dissipate. There are ways to have authentic, healthy relationships without power and control; I have always believed the wheel of equality is possible. I still believe Earth can exist as it is in heaven. In the name of “MY GOD,” we can choose to live not in domestic violence but in domestic vibrance. Peace be with you, happy holidays, and have a very merry Christmas.

Nancy Slavin

Nancy Slavin

Nancy Slavin (she/her) is a writer, editor, poet, mom, spouse, and GenXer. Not necessarily in that order. She was a longtime rural community college English and writing instructor as well as a violence-prevention and anti-oppression educator. She now works in development for a mid-size nonprofit. You can find more of her writing at nancyslavin.com, on Twitter at @nancyslavin1, and on Instagram at @nancyslavin1.

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