Here’s a quick quiz:
Two of these three church-related service projects are holding their own, and one is in trouble. Can you tell which one has problems?
A. The Mennonite Central Committee
B. The Mormon Church missionary program; and
C. The American Friends Service Committee
To help with your answer, here are a few clues:
For decades, the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) has coordinated several hundred Mennonites working around the world, doing service and missionary work, with considerable support from their local churches. When these volunteers get back home, most resume their “normal” lives, including in their churches. There they typically become solid supporters and advocates for MCC: they donate and raise money for it, and help defend it against the vocal rightwingers in their denomination.
The Mormons do something similar with their young adults. Many young Mormon men go out on two-year missions, for which they raise their own funding.These missionaries likewise later resume their “regular” lives, and typically become solid supporters of their church and its projects; and when their kids come of age, they eagerly go out in their turn. Unsurprisingly, the Mormon church is one of the fastest-growing denominations in the world.
In sum, both Mennonites and Mormons seem to have built a self-perpetuating “corporate culture”; neat.
Let’s turn to AFSC. Up until the mid-1960s, AFSC ran pioneering work camp and volunteer service programs, for Quakers and other like-minded folks, with lots of involvement by local Meetings. But then AFSC dumped the work camps and the whole idea of training and facilitating Quakers for service, in favor of “identifying” with “the oppressed.”
Now, back to the quiz: which of these groups is in trouble – I mean, really serious, organizational life-threatening trouble?
If you picked “C”, as in AFSC, you win. And Quakers lose.
It’s now generally admitted that this dumping-the-Quakers-and-service-projects move was a bone-headed idea. A disaster, not to put too fine a point on it. And I say this as one of the generation which bequeathed the notion to AFSC. What the hell were we thinking??
Well, there’s no rolling back history. Yet the culmination of the trajectory launched by this shift is now clear: a trainwreck.
AFSC’s chickens finally came home to roost, and turned out to be buzzards.
How bad is it? According to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer, forty per cent of AFSC’s staff has been laid off, and its income has dropped more than thirty per cent, with little relief in sight. Inside sources suggest the decline has been even steeper.
Furthermore, AFSC’c crash falls into a very forbidding environment. A recent report by The Foundation Center lays it out: “The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression resulted in the biggest reduction in U.S. Foundation giving on record.” Another detailed survey held more bad news: “Only 12 percent of nonprofits expected to operate above breakeven this year (2010)”; almost two-thirds of the groups surveyed had less than ninety days of cash reserves between them and being forced to close. Internal reports to the AFSC board say their reserves are greatly depleted as well.
From an inside fundraiser’s perspective, the story appears still more grim: since the Sixties, AFSC has been sustained financially above all by the loyalty and largesse of a World War Two generation of donors which, as an internal AFSC report recently out it, “can remember the work‐camps and the heady days of AFSC receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947.”
But 1947 was 63 years ago. And these faithful donors had one big flaw: they were mortal (like the rest of us). Now they’re mostly dead, with the rest soon to follow. That means their donations have ebbed, and their bequests are largely distributed.
In short, AFSC has turned the Mennonite/Mormon formula inside out, and wound up with a self-liquidating donor base. Hmmm.
For years, when I’ve talked with AFSC staffers, especially those involved in fundraising, I’ve asked one question again and again. It is:
“Have you found a replacement for your World War Two generation of donors?”
Finally, this summer I got a straight answer from a national AFSC fundraiser; and the answer was, in sum: “No, not yet.”
I appreciate the candor, but this was a very ominous reply.
Consider the parallels suggested by our opening quiz: since the mid-1960s—for nearly fifty years– the MCC and the Mormons have been cultivating a growing constituency of dedicated supporters and advocates, rooted in their founding churches, and expressing their considerable spiritual and organizational energies. As their World War Two donors die off, there are plenty more waiting behind them.
Meanwhile, AFSC has been seeking new donors and supporters– where?
While there are a few exceptions to this gloomy sketch, I’ll tell you where, in AFSC’s own words: “people of many faiths and backgrounds who share the values . . . .”
Which people is that?
And which values are these?
Why “Quaker” values, of course.
And what are those? “nonviolence and justice.”
We already talked about how inadequate these abstract “values” are as a base for anything “Quaker,” since who isn’t for nonviolence?? (Even the military says it favors that, “when possible.”) Or “justice”??
From a marketing perspective, a brand built on such platitudes is an empty vessel; it has no roots, no history, no identity, no culture of its own, nothing to distinguish it from the thousands of other groups working for “justice” or “nonviolence.” Especially when its stewards aren’t using the values as the Mormons and Mennonites do to build a trans-generational home base of support for the ongoing service work.
So from a rebuilding standpoint, AFSC is close to starting from scratch. How can it recover?
To replace lost donors, a group has to prospect, go looking for likely new ones. It needs to capture their attention, and (in fundraiser jargon) “cultivate” them so they gain a favorable view of the charity, then ask them to give, in varied and compelling ways that speak to their deep motivations and high values.
This process too is no news to insiders. And here’s how AFSC could get started on it.
The core prospects are the children and grandchildren of the Quaker segment of the “Greatest Generation,” especially those old enough to have living memories of the turmoil of the 1960s.
The material needed to gain their attention and loyalty is contained in the high points of this decade-plus of activism, and AFSC’s extensive involvement in it, from civil rights through the Vietnam War, women’s and gay liberation.
The compelling message drawn from this history comes down to this: there was a time in our lives when our Quaker witness and sacrifice for noble values helped make a big difference, in many ways. AFSC was there alongside you, and with your support, working together, we can make a difference again.
In one sense, this message is the flip side of that conveyed by AFSC’s latest big success, the “Eyes Wide Open” exhibit. That display made visible the futility of the troops’ sacrifices in the Iraq war. This new initiative would evoke the lived alternative.
This alternate history has been largely erased from public memory, even among many Friends: lost in the miasma of mindless distractions; diminished and discounted by decades of unrelenting rightwing propaganda; compromised by politicians; and counterfeited by consumerism. All compounded by our own failures to articulate and pass it along.
But it’s still there, and doesn’t have to stay in the shadows. There are several million now middle-aged Americans who lived it, directly or at close range, and they can still be moved by these fugitive, exiled memories and aspirations.
These memories of what once was, and the hopes for what could yet be, are not only a precious heritage. They are the keys to turning those who cherish them into AFSC’s next generations of supporters, i.e., donors.
Finding new donor prospects is an expensive and time-consuming process. It’s not clear AFSC has enough resources left to do what’s being urged here; yet it’s also not clear that any other path is viable.
“But why,” I can hear some object, “are you asking us to turn back to the past, when there are so many burning issues facing us now?”
Good question, and the answer is straightforward: this “look back” is not about nostalgia. It’s about finding hope for a potential generation of donors which has had a hard time sustaining hope.
Put more starkly: help the Boomers and their kids recover their hope, and they’ll send you money. (Then you can afford to take on the burning issues of today.) And you better start with Quakers, because those are your roots; then build from there.
What might this effort look like? Here’s one sample scenario:
March 7, 2015, Selma, Alabama. For the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma-Montgomery march, which won voting rights for millions of black citizens across the South, pilgrims came from around the world. President Barack Obama led the crowd of international dignitaries and thousands of anonymous movement veterans and their children across the historic Edmund Pettus bridge over the Alabama river.
AFSC is in Selma with a high-visibility major exhibit and program, focused on its civil rights work in the South, and in particular the murder of AFSC staffer James Reeb, who came to Selma to join the protests and was murdered by white toughs.
Two years in preparation, the exhibit was organized and mounted by a team of interns mainly drawn from Quaker meetings and churches around the country, working with movement veterans and local partners.
After the Selma celebrations conclude, the exhibit will go on the road, making stops at several sites in the South and elsewhere in the country.
I look to Selma as a landmark of the era, because I was there; but such work doesn’t have to wait until 2015 to begin.
To repeat, the donor marketing rationale here is straightforward: the Boomer activists and their children found a sense of achievement and promise in Selma (and similar events). But that sense has been buffeted and battered since. Remind them of it in an inclusive way, and you can help them regain their hope for today. Do that, and you can ask them for support for current projects.
Of course, any such connection has to be reinforced; donors need to be “cultivated.”
Fortunately, history provides a succession of similar landmark events in the period 2015-2025. Consider just a few:
1966/2016: The movement for open housing in Chicago; the debate over “Black Power.”
1967/2017: Dr. King joins the antiwar movement; big antiwar protests; second wave feminism begins its rise.
And AFSC’s Centennial. (What a combo!)
1968/2018: The murder of Dr. King; the Poor Peoples Campaign; the Chicago Democratic Convention.
1969/2019: Stonewall; the AFSC’s “March Against Death,” a powerful, dignified antiwar action in Washington.
This list could spark a whole series of events. Let’s call it the “Half Century of Hope” campaign, bringing back this past not for its own sake, but as the basis for a renewed future.
In this history there are plenty of “hooks” with which to gain and then hold the attention of Boomers and their older children (and done right, their grandchildren after them). AFSC was involved in much or most of it in one way or another. But again, the purpose of this campaign is not antiquarian. Connect with those who lived through this epic time of hope, especially as Quakers, and you can gain their support for programs of today and tomorrow.
As this recovery of hope is expressed in concrete projects, a parallel task will be to “embed” –or better, “re-root”– AFSC in the donor constituency. This process will involve some analogue to the work camps. Not the same thing (we can’t go home again), but intentional efforts to involve the target donor community in the group’s work, on as broad a scale as possible, on a continuing basis.
This is, after all, the “secret” of the Mormons’ and Mennonites’ success: self-propagating, not self-liquidating. What a concept.
And there’s more to this “embedding” idea. American Quakers have not all been idle since AFSC dumped us. Numerous small-scale projects have sprung up, not only domestically (such as, for instance, Quaker House in Fayetteville/Fort Bragg NC) but internationally as well, from Bolivia to Africa. For the most part, though, they work on their own. I suggest AFSC take on a ministry of service to these groups, for instance by offering to convene consultations where they could could share and brainstorm and, as way opened, collaborate.
Something similar would be advisable for Shan Cretin and her new leadership team. What if they made it part of their regular routine to visit widely among American Friends — not to talk, rather to listen and learn. To ask, “How can we serve Quaker work and ministries?” and make notes on the responses.
Doing so would mark a sharp break with the routine practice I and so many others have been accustomed to (and alienated by) for decades: AFSC dog-and-pony shows showcasing (bragging about) all their projects, dunning us to support them, and sidestepping challenging questions. Such a process would be a stunning (and overdue) example of organizational humility. It would also likely yield some valuable insights and ideas, once they got the hang of it.
For that matter, I would include the pastoral and evangelical groups on the itinerary. Shan might have to put up with some airing of old theological and political grievances, and more altar calls than a liberal Quaker prefers. But much is to be learned there as well. Most of these groups are in ferment; and there will be openings for those who know how to discern them and respond creatively.
One more thing: if the new leadership was ready to make a truly dramatic, visible break with AFSC’s failed order, here’s a radical proposal: move the main offices OUT of Philadelphia.
In fact, I’d leave Pennsylvania entirely; maybe head for North Carolina, where there are actually more Quakers. But most any state that was in “flyover country” would do. I bet it would save money too. After all, the Mennonite Central Committee is headquartered in Akron, PA, a hamlet in the heart of Dutch country. And the Mormon missionary program is run out of Provo, Utah. Being in flyover country seems to suit them just fine. (But, Akron PA?)
Note that I’m not suggesting AFSC somehow put itself under the authority of Yearly Meetings or any other body. But the changes contemplated here involve becoming a participating “member” of the Quaker community, rather than some sovereign entity taking time from power lunches in Geneva and Capitol Hill to mingle with the bumpkins. (Lots of these bumpkins haven’t been fooled by that routine for a long time.)
If this sounds snarky, don’t get me started repeating all the comments I’ve heard from highly accomplished Quaker professionals about being patronized, put down and ignored by self-important AFSC poohbahs over the years. “Hello, Philadelphia? This is Quakerism calling; yeah, it’s humble-pie time.”
What’s the hopeful outcome of all this scenario spinning? It’s like this: imagine ten years from now, AFSC has substantially re-rooted itself among American Friends, drawing much of its support (not all) from this base constituency. It is also involving large numbers of Friends in its work at all levels, especially younger ones, as interns and in other service-training roles.
It might be smaller, but it would have a much more distinctive “brand identity” and more solid donor base than it does now. As the interns and service veterans return, they would also be forming a cadre of solid advocates at its base (just like the Mormons and the Mennonites; dang, they’re smart). As this base takes hold, the capacity to tackle the issues of the day will grow as well. My sense is also that such a re-embedded organization would have considerable appeal for non-Quakers as well, based on, of all things, our old buddy the Friends’ “Reputation of Truth.”
Speaking of which, did you notice that the Selma scenario, like the other events drawn from the Half-Century of Hope campaign, would be putting Quaker achievements and witness before the world, as well as Friends? And it’s worth underlining that such canny and careful self-promotion had a lot to do with the successes of AFSC’s “classic” period (up to the Nobel Prize). It wasn’t only that Friends did good things; but they also managed to let the world know, without being too obvious about it.
So to recap, here’s the laundry list:
AFSC survives by finding and holding new generation(s) of donors. It finds them by:
- Mounting a “Half Century of Hope” campaign of exhibits and events highlighting the achievements and legacy of the 1960s-early 70s.
- “Re-rooting” AFSC in its Quaker base community.
- Moving the offices out of Philadelphia & PA.
- Listening to, learning from, and serving Friends and their varied witness.
- Paying special attention to involving younger Friends (the donors of tomorrow, whose parents will then become donors of today).
What are the chances of any of this happening? Such an agenda will doubtless face lots of internal opposition, from forces dedicated to protecting old turf and keeping AFSC more in tune with the latest movement trends than with a bunch of bourgeois Quakers. But such forces should be seriously in question already, and if AFSC is to survive, the old ways are overdue for an even more fundamental shakeup than they’ve had so far.
My inside sources have predicted that the changes coming in AFSC will be big and basic.
Let’s hope so. The odds are long. Times are tough; AFSC’s margin for error has shrunk; and those old donors keep dying off.
There isn’t much time. And no guarantees.