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Righteous Deeds

by Jun 19, 2024Friar Reflection

I have always wondered about the practice of nonprofit fundraising and especially large capital campaigns that offer naming opportunities to attract seven-, eight-, and nine-figure donations from high-net-worth individuals. As far back as the first century CE, Roman general Marcus Agrippa had his name inscribed on the Pantheon temple. The practice continues today as expressions of civic responsibility, prestige, and power.

There is an exchange. Naming gifts provide donors with reputational and market value. Organizations benefit with financial value and certainty. Plus, there is a time-honored tenet of fundraising: securing and publicizing lead gifts for campaigns will spur others to give. Do lead naming gifts actually stimulate others to give? Research indicates that the answer is “not really.” As a result, fundraisers encourage public acts of charity with the result that less than one percent of major gifts are offered anonymously.

Why do high-net-worth individuals donate with naming opportunities? Perhaps it is self-interest seen in personal satisfaction, giving back, furthering a legacy or family tradition, minimizing taxes, or other possibilities. All of the above reasons have an element of ego-centrism.

A utilitarian donor would hope that others benefit equally and are not harmed by a naming gift for a building. But time has a way of encroaching on such equity. Vanderbilt University had to return $1.6 million to the United Daughters of the Confederacy for their 1933 gift of $50,000 when the University changed the name of a dormitory to “Memorial Hall” from its original moniker: “Confederate Memorial Hall.” Similar problems can arise when the named donor is later convicted of crimes, felonies or other instances of embarrassing or problematic behavior.

It doesn’t always have to be a naming opportunity that raises the questions of motivations and the heart of the matter. King Solomon spent enormous amounts of money and effort to build the Jerusalem Temple that his father King David always wanted. And when finished, spent 14 years building a far more magnificent palace for himself.

An adherent of a religious movement, say Judaism, Islam or Christianity might feel compelled as an ethical duty to give in a just and merciful way to help those in need. But should such folks indulge in naming gifts? But then again, if you are reading this and are not a wealthy individual, you might ask what has this to do with you?

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.’ ” (Matthew 6:1)

Our gospel is from the Sermon on the Mount, and so far, Jesus has taught that righteousness includes a person’s heart—their thoughts and attitudes—as much as by their outward actions. Here, He begins to show that our inner person, including our motivations, is actually as if not more important than actions. His message is not that what we do is unimportant, but that improper motives turn otherwise good deeds into selfishness.

Name donors, Solomon, and ourselves – in small and large ways – seek the approval of others.  Jesus warns His audience not to expect any heavenly reward, for even the most profound acts, if the motive behind those acts was simply to be seen by others (Matthew 6:2).

This statement in no way contradicts Jesus’ recent command to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works…” (Matthew 5:16), since Jesus is speaking of two different motivations. Good works ought to be visible and public if and when that publicity primarily serves to “…give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Doing good such that others believe God is good is righteous. Doing good such that others think we are good is a touch arrogant.

Image credit: Sermon on the Mount (1877) by Carl Heinrich Bloch, Museum of National History at Frederiksborg Castle, Public Domain