Most of us are taught that four topics are taboo in polite conversation: politics, money, religion, and sex. Talking about age, illness and death is often taboo as well, and in some parts of the country or within different cultural groups, other topics may not be discussed. Of all these topics, money is the most forbidden. We have ecumenical councils to break down barriers among religions, we have support, education and advocacy groups on issues of sex and sexuality, hospice programs to deal with death and dying, and a disability rights movement, but there are few serious efforts to break down our taboo of talking about money.
For example, many of us were raised to believe that it is rude to ask someone what their salary is, or how much they paid for their house or their car. In many families, one person (traditionally the man) takes care of all financial decisions and transactions. It is not unusual, even today, for spouses not to know how much each earns, for children not to know how much their parents earn, and for close friends not to know one another’s income.
The net effect of these taboos of discussing money is that money takes on the air of being both mysterious and bad. The hidden message is that “good” people don’t deal with money except insofar as they must in order to live. Many people, misquoting the Bible, say, “Money is the root of all evil.” In fact, Paul’s statement to the Philippians in the New Testament is, “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). In the Letter of James, we see another Biblical admonition, “You have not because you ask not” (James 4:2).
Money, in itself, has no good or evil qualities. It is not a moral substance. Money facilitates people obtaining what they want or need. As such, how money is used, where it is obtained, and the inequities of who has it and who does not, have moral implications. This is a very different situation from money itself being evil.
As long as money remains private and mysterious, only those persons willing to learn about it can really control it. Systems can remain discriminatory, and people without knowledge about how money works will have far fewer choices and much less power than those willing to break with the taboo. For example, when it is common practice not to ask about salaries, institutions can conceal the fact that women are paid less than men or people of color receive less than white people for the same work. Banks can deny loans or credit card companies can charge usurious rates of interest with little fear of getting caught, because most people have little idea of what they are entitled to.
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In America, an elite upper class controls the majority of the nation’s wealth, either by earning it or inheriting it or both. It serves the interest of this ruling class for the mass of people to continue not to know about money. As political activists and participants in social change, we must learn about money, not only for fundraising, but for all organizing purposes—how to raise it effectively and ethically, how to manage it, and how to spend it wisely.
The first step in getting over your anxiety about managing or asking for money is to remember that you weren’t born with it and that what you have been taught about money perpetuates a system that, in the rest of your work, you are trying to change.
About the Author
Kim Klein is an internationally known fundraiser and fundraising trainer. She is best known for adapting traditional fundraising techniques to the needs of small grassroots nonprofits. She also publishes the Grassroots Fundraising Journal and has written several books on the subject. For more information contact Chardon Press.