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Charity Begins at Home

A simple statement, “Charity begins at home” can take on many meanings in various contexts. I believe most of us will agree that taking care of one’s own self is a good idea. It doesn’t necessarily mean at the expense of our neighbors.
It’s interesting that different sources attribute the phrase to different authors. claims it belongs to Sir Thomas Browne, a noted British writer, in 1642. Wikipedia gives attribution to John Wycliffe who in 1380 said, “Charity should begin at himself.” Sure. Whatever.
Nonprofit leaders should think about the Charity Begins at Home sentiment. It likely has some impact right now in the USA when millions are still unemployed, and where a substantial % of the unemployed are in the lowest 20% of income. Yet, in spite of high unemployment Americans stepped up and donated tens, hundreds of millions of dollars, many in $10 text messages, in response to the Haiti earthquake. We appreciate the American spirit: so many, even in times of personal deprivation,get beyond “Charity Begins at Home” and find a way to pitch in. This says much about the character of the people who are our neighbors, friends, family. We take sharing seriously. We recall biblical stories about the poor family who welcomed the stranger and shared their meager meal. We relate.
So, in the midst of this, why is it that so many members of boards of directors of nonprofit organizations have a hard time reaching for their checkbook or credit card when they are asked to support the very nonprofit they are part of? I find in my board development work, that when we broach the subject of board giving, and it’s not settled practice, it’s a thorny issue to address. But when we do, the majority buy in and make the gift.
In a sense, if a person serves on the board s/he is “family.” And if we are family, get the concept that Charity Begins at Home. Over half of all boards have a policy about member giving. And I dare say that most give gladly. Some say, “give ’til it hurts.” On a recent CBS Sunday Morning segment on giving, a United Way executive said “give ’til it feels good.” Sure. But do give.
When leaders of the nonprofit, or public benefit organization, go calling on a prospective donor to ask for support all the askers must have made their gift first. Because donor prospects will frequently ask, “Did you make your gift yet? Great! Can you tell me how much? Should I match your gift?”
So herein lies another layer of meaning to “Charity begins at home.”
The board is the hub of the organization. And as we build relationships with folks who occupy the “spokes” territory, and as we ask these friends to join us in financially supporting our mission and our cause, it’s important that we the board are giving, too.

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