Sunday, October 12, 2008

LDS Philanthropic Culture Part 2: Current Status

This topic obviously deserves further research and investigation but without published research specific to Mormons the ideas will have to rely on my own conversations, observations and a bit of intuition from my own experiences so it is by no means authoritative nor expert.  Also, bear in mind that I am only trying to explain what is currently happening, not passing judgement.  Here is my take on the current culture of philanthropy in the Mormon community:

1. Mormons do mainly charity not strategic philanthropy

This is not good or bad this is just what we do.  Mormons are generally happy with one-off charitable gifts/activities and they do so frequently and freely. Disaster relief is therefore a great fit for the LDS Church which they do very well and they are starting to make a name for themselves in that space, which I think is fantastic. Our ability to mobilize a large army of volunteers swiftly and orderly with smiles on their faces and not afraid to get their hands dirty is largely unmatched in the world.

The Mormon community in general is not involved in what could be called 'strategic' philanthropy meaning professional analysis, ongoing intervention, and evaluation, whether doing so themselves or supporting such efforts. Even activities of the institutional church such as employment centers or the Perpetual Education Fund are not completely 'strategic interventions', limited by their operations being carried out almost exclusively by short-term volunteers with little expertise in analyzing and refining such interventions.  Not to take away from what the PEF is accomplishing but I think the implementation is still catching up to the vision.

2. Mormons trust the LDS Church with their money

When an average latter-day saint or a wealthy LDS businessman is considering a philanthropic donation the brand of the Church is an instant vetting process. The Church is 1) extremely conscious of treating donated money as sacred funds, 2) they have a long track record of proven fiscal responsibility and 3) the fact that they use volunteers means extremely low overhead (which is appealing on the surface but I'll toss in my own opinion--low overhead is a very poor indicator of impact or social return on investment). So, many Mormons will give gifts to the Church before they would consider giving money outside of the Church for other philanthropic activities.  I think this phenomenon is also connected to the general isolation of the church for most of its history; general members simply have not been exposed to alternate options of philanthropy.  

3. Mormons are extremely conservative

Mormons have an interesting relationship with government and gov't welfare programs so that there is a constant battle over words in LDS charitable activities.   I sense that there is such an adverse taste to "socialism" and/or hand-out philanthropy that some do not like the connotation of 'social' even in words like "social entrepreneurship" or "social issues." Mormons have liked to use the word "self-reliance" but even that word has not been accepted by everyone, some do not like the word on grounds that it can appear to mean we somehow do not rely on the Lord as we should.  See Hugh Nibley Work we Must but the Lunch is Free.  So, it goes back and forth. Generally, the church and the members are weary to support 'liberal' activities.  I think that somewhat explains why Mormons have been drawn to activities such as microcredit and educational loans because they mix charity with conservative practicality and values.

4. Mormons prefer anonymous giving

This is more intuition than hard research but I get the sense that Mormons prefer anonymity in their giving. The roots likely come from the scriptural injunction for anonymous giving from the Sermon on the Mount but that would be common among all Christians. I think some give through the Church to preserve their anonymity and at the same time get satisfaction that the Church is, instead of themselves, getting the public relations attention. There is also a sense that Mormons will just go about their work, whether it's recognized by the wider world or not, which is a spirit that has accompanied most of their operations, so why not their philanthropic activities.  I really like this cultural phenomenon.

5. High competition and demand among a relatively small pool of high net worth individuals.

The body of LDS philanthropists is relatively small and so the demand for their wealth is great among all the programs of the church: Temple building, BYU, Humanitarian Department, etc. let alone all the independent Mormon-run charities and the philanthropic world at large. Additionally, although Mormons have a strong showing and reputation in business, most of the wealth is new wealth so they do not have the same size endowments or foundations as some of the East Coast old-money foundations. This goes back to the history of the Mormons being chased out of the United States and the demographics of the early pioneers of the church.

I could keep going but there is enough here to discuss... how did I do? Do you see the same patterns? What goes on in your mind when you are considering donating to the Church above and beyond tithing donations?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

LDS Philanthropic Culture Part 1

A favorite Mormon scripture reads "...see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength..." (Mosiah 4:27). That phrase, as quoted, has been used recently in General Conference referring to church service (Ballard and Oaks), education/occupation/marriage/childbearing (Oaks), temple service (Oaks), family history (Oaks), heeding the prophet (Uchtdorf) and then Neal Maxwell built an entire beautiful discource around that phrase.

It is a great verse and appropriate in multiple settings, I think it is interesting to note that the context of that verse refers specifically to our philanthropic efforts as disciples of Christ and I highlight a couple phrases that I find interesting but do not always receive the same level of attention:
Mosiah 4:26-27 I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants. And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore all things must be done in order.

There is that famous essay by Hugh Nibley entitled Zeal without Knowledge, which phrase will serve as my thesis on this subject or at least will provide a benchmark for what we must be weary of. For the next three posts I would like to explore the philanthropic culture of the LDS community and evaluate our performance based on those measurements: wisdom, order, and diligence. The first post will attempt to provide a survey of the current/historical culture of philanthropy in the Mormon community, the second will look at trends, and the third is my hope for the future.

To set the stage, our mandate from scripture, living prophets, and the temple:

"Remember in all things the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted, for he that doeth not these things, the same is not my disciple" D&C 52:40

This humbling sentiment is expressed throughout scripture: James 1:27, Jacob 2, and Matt 25:34-36 which has been a favorite scripture of both Gordon Hinckley and Thomas Monson.

However, I think we as Mormons have a much larger mandate, we are supposed to create entire communities, whole societies, that function in this manner. We are to be of "one heart and one mind" and have "no poor among" us. We speak of salvation, not in the Protestant tradition of individual salvation, but in the Israelite tradition of being saved as a people. We have a heavenly mandate to live the law of consecration now yet the common sentiment is that it will somehow be switched on at some magical moment in the future. Brigham Young had something to say about that:
Some of our Elders, and, in fact, some of the Twelve will tell you, "Yes, yes, the Order is a splendid principle and will bring happiness, etc., but it not hardly time to enter into it, wait a little while until the people understadn it a little better." Why, the are fools! They don't konw what they talk about. They have ears to hear and will not hearken, and have eyes to see and will not understand... I don't care how the world goes, what the President (of the U.S.) or his emissaries do. It matters nothing to me. What I am thinking of and interested about is how do the Latter-day Saints do?...The devil is in the community and he has not been turned out. Well, I still have hope in Israel.
I might not have the fiery bluntness of Brigham Young or the poignant prose of Hugh Nibley but these next few posts are delivered in a similar spirit, my hope in Israel and it is as more of a sermon to myself than to anyone else.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Don't "go through" the Mormon Temple

In the spirit of my last post I want to re-examine some of the cultural phrases the LDS community has come to use, this time in regards to the House of the Lord.

It is a common phrase in Mormon circles to talk about "going through the temple." But I love how Truman Madsen puts it in his essay "House of Glory" which can now be found in Five Classics of Truman Madsen, that we should talk about the "temple going through us."

I love that paradigm shift. If we are simply going through the temple like it were some sort of amusement ride or rite of passage then we are missing the point entirely. Furthermore, if we are communicating to our youth that the sole goal is to "go through the temple" then again I think we are doing ourselves a great injustice. The temple is a "house of learning", "a house of glory", "a house of faith"; all of those characteristics require time and accumulate in small increases in wisdom due to long exposure to light and truth. The temple should go through us.

Another phrase Truman identifies is "temple work" about which he says, "there is a sense, of course, in which it is work; but too rarely do we speak of "temple worship," which can send us back to our work changed."

Why do we shy away from using the word "worship"? I tend to hear the word 'worship' used mainly in the negative as in 'worshipping' money or cars or other things of this world or in terms of bowing down to idols. However, while that is a apt description for peoples' behavior, using the word strictly for the negative lessens our ability to describe true or pure worship. Alternatively, I do see a point that the word "worship" is sacred, particularly to the individual who is approaching the Lord, and should be used sparily and is perhaps most appropriate in text. But in the end I do think that if we used the phrase more often it would change our outlook on the temple and what we do there.

What do you think? Are there other casual phrases or words that we as members use that we need to re-examine?

Saturday, October 4, 2008

My prescription for promoting high culture in the LDS Church

There was a great post the other day over at Times and Seasons by Kent Larsen entitled "Key to the Culture of Mormons" which inspired a long comment by myself, which I thought I would share and develop in this forum. The topic I responded to being the transmission of "high culture" in the LDS community and the current absence of mechanisms of exchange.

There are many layers at play here but I do agree that currently there are few mechanisms in place, or at least the current mechanisms are not being used, to transmit 'high LDS culture' across the entire worldwide church body. I think the explanation is largely historical and is a manifestation of the growing pains/identity shift of a church that was largely isolated in Utah for most of its history which has then suddenly exploded into an international, multicultural church in the last 50 years, coming to a forefront in the last 10.

First, I believe that the church can and should help promote high culture and art by incorporating it into the official worship program. I think the Church is trying to do this with such activities as the International Art Competition, which I look forward to the next exhibit, and a recent emphasis in showcasing art in the Ensign.  I think they are also trying to disseminate high culture through special events in the conference center, such as these fabulous Christmas concerts, Latino celebrations, as well as productions in the small theater at the conference center, etc. They are also trying to disseminate it through BYUTV and in general BYU is used as a mechanism to create and share such art. I think the Church leadership is aware of the need to inspire and showcase such creativity and the ideal of developing high culture as part of a religious community is perhaps strongest in Mormonism when compared to other modern religions. Also, I would add that I think the Church has good taste in art and music based on what it tends to showcase on its official stages and publications. However... I think the Church still has a long way to go in terms of reaching this ideal and in the refinement of their current mechanisms, particularly regarding worldwide marketing and distribution.

A couple ways I would like to see the LDS Church incorporate high art and culture into the official worship program:

1. Allow greater flexibility in the hymnal, encourage local musicians to compose sacred music and help them publish, in some poor countries in Africa and Latin America you might need to help these artists financially to publish and record.

2. Give local members more flexibility in the art and decor of local temples. Even if it delays the opening by a few weeks, bring artists in the temple to paint murals, use local artists to do the woodwork, I think it would go a long way in both building the richness of LDS culture as well as building the faith and commitment of local members through participation. I think Mormon culture has lost something special in the process of streamlining our temple building. I love the beauty of the early temples, Salt Lake, Manti, with their brilliant architecture and high art, they are shining gems of the testimonies and commitment of the people.

3. Make the high art sourced in the International Art Competitions more available for mass consumption. The Church even awards some of the best works with "Purchase Awards" but then they get hung in the Church Museum or somewhere on Temple Square never to be seen by the majority of Church members. Why not use these as part of the LDS Gospel Art Kit or make them easily available for purchase through the Church Distribution catalogue? 

4. Potentially showcase high art/music at Conference. How many members have never heard the beautiful “The Redeemer” or similar oratorios? I thought it was interesting when the church brought in the Brazilian singer Liriel Domiciano and allowed her to sing not only in Music and the Spoken Word but in the Sunday morning session of Conference. The linked article says that that had not happened since 1930. Conference is perhaps the most central distribution mechanism of LDS culture, and for setting precedence; I think the church could use it strategically to inspire the development of the sacred music tradition of the Church. When a Koto or Javanese Gamelan orchestra accompanies the Mormon Tabernacle Choir we'll know the Church is trying to reach out to its international membership.

I think the second side in this equation is that members of the Church interested in these topics need to unite and use business and the Internet effectively to promote the creative arts of LDS artists. I think it needs to be separate from the Church and BYU but not so far removed from the mainstream that it can be dismissed by the mainstream membership of the Church. I think it will need to be web-based to reach the international church if it is truly going to represent and try to promote a world-wide high-art culture of Mormonism.

Those are my thoughts, I'm sure they are not new ideas and I know there are more important things to manage in the worldwide church such as pure doctrine and leadership, so this would all just be a cherry on top.