The Business of Giving, and the Incommensurate Rewards

In the late 1990s, we had a lovely conversation with Catherine Kairavi, who for many years served as director of fundraising activities of Ananda Sangha worldwide.

Q: Non‑profit businesses are proliferating nowadays, and donations may continue to provide an important part of the funding for cooperative communities in the future. Can you share your thoughts with us on fundraising for spiritual organizations, and the benefits people receive from supporting a spiritual work.

A: Before I became involved with fundraising, I helped out with all kinds of projects, from building The Expanding Light, Ananda’s public meditation retreat, to publishing a paperback edition of Swami Kriyananda’s autobiography, The Path.

We had all this enthusiasm, all this fire, and all these wonderful ways to touch people – but the limiting factor was always money. After a while, I began to feel that I would give anything to be able to tackle that issue, and Divine Mother blessed me by giving me that area of responsibility, and I got to try to open up the financial bottleneck.

Q: How did you begin?

A: I was the first full‑time fundraiser that Ananda had ever had. I started out by attending a week-long course in San Francisco where I learned the classic model for nonprofit fundraising. They taught us about capital campaigns to raise money for major projects, and the annual appeal that supports the general budget and the operating expenses. They told us about special fundraising events, planned giving, and bequest programs for building long‑range financial stability. So I got a quick thumbnail course, and I went back to Ananda Village, where the first thing we did was try to raise funds to build The Expanding Light.

We had built a concrete foundation that was sitting out in the rain, just waiting for a building to be erected on top of it. At the time we were trying to build the EL with gifts and loans, and of course I immediately betrayed the first principle of “Fundraising 101,” which is that you never, ever undertake a capital campaign unless you’ve already had an annual campaign in place for many years. So of course we started with a capital campaign. The standard idea is that until you’ve conducted an annual appeal, you have no idea who’s even interested in you, and what gifts they’ll be capable of giving.

But at Ananda we already knew our people, because we’d had other avenues of contact with them. We just didn’t necessarily know what they would give, because we hadn’t ever really asked them to give to Ananda.

The first year, we had a lot more success with loans than with outright gifts. But it was a great experience, because it meant that I had to get on the phone and overcome my fear or shyness or pride, or whatever it is that gets between you and going up to someone and saying “Can you help us out with this project?” And it was great to see what can happen when you jump in and start making cold calls.

You have to get really impersonal about who you are, and why you’re asking people for donations. You have to remember that it’s not you who’s asking. You’re asking on behalf of Paramhansa Yogananda and Ananda, so you have to ask with a centeredness and dignity that comes from the nobility of the cause. You learn to get out of any thought of yourself and your personal shyness. Because you have to get a whole lot bigger than that, or you’ll never be able to ask for money. So it was a wonderful experience to start out with a capital campaign, because it was like being thrown in at the deep end and having to learn the principles real fast.

It was interesting to see – and this is a sense that has grown in me over the years – that the people who give to a project tend to form a bond with the project, and it becomes part of them. And when someone gives money to Ananda, they immediately feel closer, and they feel more like family. I remember Swamiji saying that if you want to make someone your friend, you should ask them to do you a favor.

Q: Paramhansa Yogananda said, “Friendship is based on mutual usefulness.” It may sound sort of functional and practical, but there’s something about being useful that opens your heart to others.

A: If you create in someone a feeling that you need them, that they’re integral to something that’s important to you, then they begin to feel that they’re a part of you. If people feel that Ananda will go on without them, without their help, they won’t feel so much a part of it. They won’t feel essential to it. They won’t feel that they’ve being served. Fundraising is a vital way to help people serve Paramhansa Yogananda. Sometimes, I would ask people to imagine what would happen if someone walked in the door with millions of dollars and told the rest of us to put our wallets back in our pockets. I ask people to meditate on what it would feel like in their hearts. And it’s contractive. You would feel smaller. You’d feel diminished. You’d feel pushed out of the circle vibrationally.

Q: You’re walking into a building that’s cold, like a government office?

A: Nothing would be needed from you to make it grow. You wouldn’t be asked to put your elbow grease into it – and that isn’t the way people grow.

Q: Rodger Hall told a wonderful story. He was asked to do the wiring for the Paramhansa Yogananda museum at Crystal Hermitage. He couldn’t afford the best light fixtures, so he decided to contribute his labor. He had never tried doing that before, and he didn’t know what would happen. But he went ahead, and the day after he finished the job he got an incredible contract that recouped his labor costs on the museum job in just one week. And afterward a string of jobs poured in. I mention the story because you’ve made it so clear that you’re doing people a favor by asking them to contribute to a spiritual work.

A: It’s the same principle that operates for people when they serve any part of the ministry. I feel that giving helps people. It helps them open their hearts. I have found over the years that people who don’t give financially usually leave the work. Sooner or later, you have to open up that part of your life to God. On the spiritual path, you have to learn to relate to money as energy, and to recognize its source as God. Unless you’re willing to let God flow back to His other children through you, sooner or later it will throw you out of tune.

It’s a very unusual individual who fails to spiritualize that part of his or her life and activities and still manages to go deep spiritually. The people who give, I see getting more in tune spiritually. They seem to have an easier time dealing with the doubts and dilemmas and tests of the spiritual path. It softens their hearts. God is more their partner. So, yes, I do see it as a ministry. I see it as a service to people, to ask them for money. But my job is to do it in a way that is as inspiring as possible, and that keeps it on the highest plane. It’s never giving just to a build a temple, it’s to serve Paramhansa Yogananda, and to serve others through a particular project. You have to keep it on that spiritual level, where it truly is.

Q: If people receive blessings from it, it would appear that it’s spiritually valid. The proof is how the pudding tastes.

A: And they definitely do. You just have to help them feel initially that Paramhansa Yogananda is behind the project.

Q: Is personal contact important when you’re trying to convey a spiritual vibration, and grow a spiritual work?

A: It is. Although I think we can also do it to some extent through other channels. I try to create all of the written fundraising pieces, and that’s why I also started creating videos. Two years ago, I started making an Annual Appeal video. We produced an audiotape with selections of Swami Kriyananda’s new music.

Every year, I struggle to work with the written medium and the mailing list. How can we make it as intimate and genuinely sincere as possible? How can it be as powerful as possible? The video was one answer. Anybody who gave even a dime in 1994 would automatically get one of those videos.

But I don’t sit back with my calculator, thinking “If we do this much we’re probably going to get this much back.” It’s not that kind of asking. It’s always a question of how to give people the most intimate, powerful experience of the vibration that’s coming through Ananda. And that question must be answered differently each year.

I can look back and remember how, in 1992, we put two ministers on the road in a car with cracked windows. They went up and down Route 5 with $5 dollars in their pockets, conducting satsangs, and eight years down the line it created Ananda Seattle. So that’s the process that we’re continually feeding into. We’re trying to create something that is strong and supportive for people locally, because there’s no substitute for that. And then we also try to support the people in the Midwest who may never have a community but nevertheless need our support.

Q: As the work grows, do you think it will continue to feel intimate because of the fact that it’s serving people?

A: Yes – we’ve got to do it that way, because that’s the heart of Ananda. It was an important issue in the lawsuit that SRF filed against Ananda, that we believe the spark of Yogananda’s inspiration doesn’t get passed from an organization to the individual, but from one individual to another, and from one devotee’s heart and wisdom to another devotee who’s receptive and is longing for it.

It’s always person to person, and it can never be faceless. I think that as we grow, even if the office has a hundred people, the nature of that one‑on‑one contact can never change, or we might as well shut down.

Q: I remember visiting Ananda for the first time and being inspired by the spiritual vibrations that I could feel, and the divine presence that I sensed in people’s lives.

A: There’s no substitute for that, and there never will be. So it will be a challenge, for sure, and we have to be clear in our minds that personal contact is the essence of the way people grow spiritually. The printed page can inspire people in many ways, but eventually there’s got to be that spark from one devotee to another.

Devi told me about a Christmas gathering where Swami Kriyananda made an appearance. He had had a minor stroke that same morning, but he insisted on coming upstairs, and once he was there he put out tremendous energy. She said that she walked out feeling really Angry at him. In fact, it ended up with him having to enter the hospital on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. But she walked out feeling really upset, thinking “Why does he have to do that?” But then she realized that if she came into a room that was messy and sloppy, where the flower arrangements were falling over and there were dust‑bunnies in the corners, she would feel obligated and driven to straighten, neaten, and beautify, just as he had felt driven to give all of his energy and blessings to others. But she was so upset that he’d let himself get totally depleted, so soon after his most recent surgery.

Everyone has a relationship with money. Everybody. It’s an important question: how do I deal with money? What do I do with my money? What do I do with my money that will make me feel good? And that will give me real happiness?

So, yes, I think of fundraising as a ministry. And if you think of it in terms of pure returns, the profit margin is fabulous. But I certainly don’t think of it as a business in that sense. Rather, it’s ultimately an investment in everyone’s happiness. That’s what you’ve decided to invest in, and the return is going to come entirely in intangibles, as greater joy for yourself, greater attunement with God, and helping a ministry to grow that has served you beautifully.

It’s ultimately asking people to invest in the consciousness of mankind. Most of the people who are involved with us don’t have any trouble with that. It’s all they’re really interested in. And it’s thrilling to work with people who have that awareness.

To make an instant one-click contribution to the spiritual work of Ananda Palo Alto, follow the link to the donation page, where you’ll find seven wonderful ways to give..