“As much as you did it to the least of these little ones, you did it to me.”

Published on 23 Nov 2017

I have a friend who is a professional fundraiser. Like professional politicians and professional journalists, professional fundraisers are commonly regarded by a cynical public as professional liars whose only contribution to society is to part the gullible from their money – a kind of Darwinian economic determinism. That is, of course, when they are not morally blackmailing overly generous little old ladies to the point of suicide. (Sadly, there are real such examples.)

But my friend assures me that it is not so – at least not all of the time; or at least not these days; or at least not where he works.

I asked him to explain – and so he did. He told me that he had left university with a lower second class degree and drifted into fundraising because he was “good in the pub”. But, even in fundraising, it would appear, being “good in the pub” is not sufficient to guarantee career success. The clue is in the job title. You actually have to raise some money. And this he was not good at. He was good at meeting people, enjoying their company, having them enjoy his company, working the conversation around to the needs of the charity that he represented; getting them interested, even excited, in the work of his charity. He could do it all, except for that last little bit. He could not actually ask directly for money. Something prevented him, held him back from actually persuading people to part with their money for the cause which he represented. And even when he overcame his reluctance and tried, he came off as an importunate and demanding beggar who simply alienated.

At the end of his six-month probationary period, he was kept on, but his probation was extended a further three months. At the end of that time, he received a written warning about his performance and his probation was extended – he was assured one last time – for a further three months. He did not know what to do, so he did what men generally do only as a very last resort, when there is nothing left to lose. He asked his girlfriend.

They had known each other for some years, but Gillian did not really understand what he actually did as such. He tried to explain and found it difficult. So she put the questions very simply:

“What does the charity you represent actually exist to do?”

To which he gave the pat answer, “to improve the lives of the children in our care.”

“And how exactly do you really do that?”

And Adrian was about to give his stock answer to that question when he realised that actually the only truthful answer was that he didn’t really know. He knew what he was supposed to say; but he didn’t know what was really true.

He prayed about that little bit – yes, he was that desperate! – And he formed a little resolution. He had a couple of weeks holiday coming up – he and Gillian had been intending to go away somewhere, but he hoped she would understand. And he went and spent it volunteering in one of the care homes of his own charity.

When he came back, his world had changed, changed utterly. Yeats would have said that a terrible beauty was born. He now knew why the charity had been founded – not just its history, but the immense and urgent human need it had been set up to meet. And he knew why it needed to continue – with his own eyes he had seen; with his own ears he had heard; that need had not gone away and, in recent years, had grown far beyond the existing resources of the charity to meet. And he had found his own place in making that happen - the difference he personally was called to be. It fell into his lot to be the person who asked – begged, borrowed and otherwise obtained - the resources that the charity needed to fulfil its mission. It was not his job to be the one looking after the kids – two weeks of that had very nearly killed him. But it was his job to make sure that some of the finest human beings he had ever met got to go on doing that. And he finally knew that he got it right when, one evening, (admittedly with the assistance of a couple of pints of London Pride) he was finally able to explain it in simple unequivocal terms to Gillian in a way that she could both understand and respect.

To this day, as all beggars do, he expects and experiences rejection. He tells me that it never troubles him. He gets knocked down; he gets up again. Chumbawumba would be proud of him. Because now he knows wherefore he begs.

Thinking of this passage of scripture, I once told him that he had great faith. He was embarrassed, laughed and went off to buy another round.

But Gillian smiled.

Let us pray that each of us may also find our place in the service of Christ the King.

Paul O'Reilly SJ