Peter Brown: Fundraisers Learn from Ancient Rome

When it comes to fundraising, Christians in the 4th century may have something to teach the churches and charities of today. At least that’s one thing I got out of the conversation between Peter Brown and Elaine Pagels at Labyrinth Bookstore on Wednesday night. Brown and Pagels talked about his new very thick book Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, published by Princeton University Press. The room was packed with Brown’s many avid admirers, a group to which I now eagerly belong.

Brown is the acknowledged expert on late antiquity,  the period from the 2nd to the 8th centuries, when the Christian church was on the rise and the aristocracy of Rome was in decline.

Telling of how the church acquired its wealth, Brown said that — in contrast to secular Rome’s rich upper class, which felt an obligation to give gifts for the public good — the big givers of the Christian church were not necessarily the wealthy. “To hold together such a socially differentiated group of givers was one of the great achievements of the Christian churches of the time.,” writes Brown. “It was based on creative synergy between new wealth and a low profile religious group that had already been schooled to engage in collective ventures.”

The “low profile religious group” was, of course, the Hebrew people, who had been indoctrinated for centuries on how they should take care of widows and the poor. 

 “The unspoken heroes are the average Joes,” said Brown. Their names weren’t on monuments, like the rich Romans. They were on tombstones and in graffiti. They had a willingness to give big.”

Apparently some things in the church never change. If you know anything about big money fundraising, you have heard of the 80-20 rule, that 80 percent of the funds raised will be donated by 20 percent of the people involved. That’s why, when you start to raise big money, you go to the likely big donors first, to get a head start.

Guess what — this has been true for 17 centuries, says Brown.

Thanks to Francisco Marshall’s blog for the terrific photograph of Peter Brown. 

P. 87. 

“Members of the rich often came to the church so as to find there a social urban lung. They valued in the churches a certain lowering of the sense of hierarchy and a slowing down of the pace of competition.”

 The sense that the glory of heaven stood behind their every gift enabled the Christian rich to contribute regularly and with that much less strain. By giving in the Christian churches they took part in a communal religious venture tinged with expectation of limitless rewards.

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