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.
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 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.