Conversation with Kendra VanderMeulen

John Terrill: You have an interesting background in business. Could we catch a couple highlights from your previous business endeavors?

Kendra VanderMeulen: My husband and I moved here [Seattle] in 1994 to join McCaw Cellular in the Internet's very early days. It was clear that the Internet and email were becoming a significant way to do business. In 1994, cell phones were relatively new. We started out on a project to get Internet protocol on a wireless device. We were thinking of adding wireless on a laptop, but we soon realized that we needed to figure out a solution on a handset.

In 1996, we launched the first browser-based handset called PocketNet service. In launching it, we demonstrated to the cell phone world what the future would hold. I learned what it means to "hang over the bleeding edge of technology" in the market and how to fight your way to the top of the mountain in order to get down the other side. It was exhausting but a great run. I left AT&T in 2001, and I have served on boards since. I serve on the boards of B-Square, Inc. in Bellevue, Inrix, Inc. in Kirkland, and Perlego Systems, Inc. in Bellevue.

JT: What do you miss most about leadership in the for-profit sector?

KV: Not much to be honest, because I feel like I came to the end of that season. I spent 30 years in telecom and when I was done, I was done. If anything, I miss the camaraderie of a large team and the relationships built when you are battling for something that you care about. In the smaller, not-for-profit world, there is less of that. It was a great run but I love what I am doing now.

JT: Tell me about the transition to the Seattle Christian Foundation.

KV: It probably started in 1998. At that time, I was in the throes of re-launching the AT&T Wireless PocketNet service, and I was diagnosed with cancer. I began to think that however many years the Lord gave me from that point forward, I wanted to spend doing something that felt closer to where God was moving me.

After leaving AT&T in 2001, I took a couple of years off. I got wooed back into the corporate world in 2003 working for InfoSpace, but when I left there I knew I was ready for a new direction. I was introduced in 2005 to the Seattle Christian Foundation by a friend who was thinking about taking the job, but whenever he prayed about it my name came up. It took a couple of years before I knew that God wanted me to fill this role, and I said yes to the opportunity in 2007.

JT: Were there any key discernment moments on the way to taking the job?

KV: It was largely a slow process. It first started with engaging the foundation as a user, realizing that my husband and I could be far more generous than we had been previously. We historically asked our financial advisor, 'Do we have enough?'; we didn't ask 'Do we have more than enough'?

When asking that second question we found out that we could double or triple our giving. This experience opened my eyes to engaging giving in a new way. It opened my eyes to the real battle people face in giving generously. We don't really understand what generosity is from the New Testament perspective, and we don't really have anyone to talk to about the subject who knows how to help.

Donovan Richards: Why is a local Christian foundation needed?

KV: There are two parts to the question. Why local and why Christian? Most communities have local foundations helping donors become more effective in how they give. We do that as well. But, we also see our mission as helping local churches and ministries to be more effective in serving their donors. From a Christian perspective, we believe it is important for believers to be on the same page with the people who give them advice. Sharing a worldview makes a huge difference when discussing the big questions about money and charity.

JT: What kind of advisory services do you provide?

KV: Everything we do is called "donor advised." That is, we are not about choosing where the money goes, we are about facilitating the options for the donors, helping them unlock more of God's resources. Ultimately, we believe that everything belongs to God. While 80 percent of giving in the United States is done out of cash, statistically only 7 percent of people's net worth is cash. Thus 93 percent of assets are not effectively stewarded for churches and Christian organizations.

For example, $2.5 billion of avoidable capital gains tax were paid in 2001. Donors sold things and then gave rather than giving and then selling. There's a huge potential impact for Christian causes if we can learn to steward our resources wisely. Another simple example, 80 percent of real estate gifts are declined. Charities don't know how to take, manage, and sell gifts like real estate and privately held stock. The Foundation can take these gifts in, manage them, and sell them. We can better leverage the value of non-cash assets for charitable purposes.

JT: Who manages the assets?

KV: We are the local affiliate of the National Christian Foundation (NCF), which is a large operation out of Atlanta with a billion dollars under management. Seattle Christian Foundation has an agreement with the NCF to work with givers and ministries in the western Washington region. We teach and build relationships in the area, and we help givers sort through their goals and options. Then all of the difficult technical work is done by the NCF as a part of our agreement.

JT: Could you tell us about the donor advised fund?

KV: A donor advised fund is a charitable account into which a donor deposits cash or assets, receiving their charitable tax deduction at the point of the deposit, and out of which the donor makes grants to the charities they want to support. Technically, the grant-making process is referred to as "advice," because legally they are advising us to make the grant. We, of course are happy to do so, so long as the money is going to a legal non-profit whose purposes are not antithetical to our Christian purposes.

The key idea is that it allows the donor to separate their decisions about how much to give and which assets to use for giving from the questions of which charities they want to support. This allows them to be much more strategic by accumulating charitable funds tax efficiently, and then giving them as they feel called to give. It's about having a plan and being intentional about your giving. If you are giving more than $10,000 per year to more than a couple of charities, it is good to work with a donor advised fund.

JT: What groups have been most resistant to the Seattle Christian Foundation?

KV: The secular community foundations see a competitive situation, but other than that there isn't much resistance. I do find that churches and ministries don't quite know what to do with us because our approach is new to them. Churches are used to passing the plate and asking for checks. They don't know how to engage us. Churches have an idea that they get less because donors are donating to the Seattle Christian Foundation instead of the church. We think it's about how to make a bigger pond in order to give more to everyone.

Donovan Richards: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are making headlines with their $600 billion challenge. What are your thoughts on Buffett's pledge to give away 99% of his wealth?

Kendra VanderMeulen: I think the pledge that Buffett and Gates have made is significant and compelling. I believe that God empowers people to advance His agenda whether they are people who adhere to strong faith commitments or not. Buffett's approach demonstrates a few relatively "new" ideas that are valuable for all of us to consider:

  • Moving as much money as possible to heirs is not always the best and most responsible thing to do. Leaving some to heirs makes sense, but it can be overdone and philanthropic endeavors represent a very powerful alternative.
  • Leaving lots of money to endow a foundation has many risksbecause after a generation or two the board of the foundation can move it in directions which the original donor did not intend and would not approve. It is best to distribute wealth quickly to work that needs to be done and can be identified and measured within the donor's lifetime. The original families behind the Ford Foundation, and many others, would wish they had done the same if they could see what is happening today.
  • The private sector can be much more effective at working on many issues than the public sector. While both of these men have been supportive of higher taxes and bigger government, when push comes to shove they give their money to work that they can directly see and measure. It is much more effective, and they are demonstrating the need to take responsibility for the performance of the work they give to. This is good stewardship.
  • The giving proposed here is out of net worth, not out of income. This is extremely significant. As Christians, we too often restrict our thinking about giving to the concept of a tithe, or a percent of income. But God has given us much more than that. Continuing to build bigger and bigger barns is foolish, according to God, and Buffett is taking an important step in beginning to empty his barns for the benefit of others.

John Terrill: Are Christians generous?

KV: Some are. Statistically they are not.

JT: I'd love to hear how you are trying to cultivate the value of generosity.

KV: We are cultivating it in several ways. One way is how we walk alongside donors and their families. Also, my own study has given me context and content to share with churches and other groups, and I am pleased to come teach on the subject of biblical generosity, as well as about the tools that folks can use to be more successful givers.

We also partner with other organizations. One organization is calledGenerous Giving, funded by the Maclellan Foundation. They are focused on raising the question of generosity in a safe and encouraging way among high-capacity givers. They also do it through local events, such as hosting a 24-hour retreat on generosity. Usually 8–10 people attend; you just go away somewhere and spend some time in a facilitated environment raising and discussing important questions.

DR: What is a typical way in which a person moves along a journey of generosity?

Hear Kendra VanderMeulen's insights into the Journey of Generosity.

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JT: What kinds of new expectations are you hearing from donors these days?

KV: There are two subtle themes I am hearing. One is particularly magnified by the current economic uncertainty: the theme of fear. People ask, "Do I have enough? Will I have enough?" Those questions have always been there and they are very personal. In my role, I work hard to listen, calm fears, and introduce new ideas to people.

When the economy turned, everyone began to fear and wonder if they would have enough saved to meet their long-term needs. It points to the fact that people trust their bank accounts more than they trust Jesus. I understand the struggle because I've been there. I went through a similar journey when the economy started to tank. It is a huge struggle but it is a point where God wants to meet us and tell us that he's here for us. It's all about our relationship with Jesus, not about what we have or don't have.

JT: You mentioned fear. What is the other theme?

KV: The other theme is that some donors are asking for a higher level of control or accountability in the way non-profits use the money that is given. People want to see measurable results, even when it is difficult to measure impact. They are applying business principles and metrics to ministry. If there is any opening at all to discuss this second issue with someone then we will because we don't think that the lens of business metrics is always the best way to view spiritual impact in the world.

It is good stewardship to ask questions about efficiency but some level of administration is necessary and important for any organization to run effectively. Sometimes it is wise to give to a specific project that a ministry is carrying out, but often it is important to just support the ministry, if it is a cause you believe in and you know they are doing a good job managing their resources.

JT: How do you integrate models and principles from the Old Testament with principles and ideas from the New Testament on generosity?

KV: I think the Old Testament has a couple key ideas about giving. First is the idea of God's ownership and the second is the idea of the tithe. As God provides to us we are called to provide back to him. We are to give the first and best fruit from a heart of worship. However, this idea is also cast as a fairly legalistic one, almost like a tax. In the New Testament you see a much bigger idea, the idea of sacrificial generosity. The heroes of generosity are the Macedonian church who gave more than they had capacity to give.

Generosity is a big theme in the New Testament and is more about freedom than obedience. Yet in the Old Testament God warns Israel in Deuteronomy 8 that with much provision, the Jews will forget God and they certainly did. This passage is like looking into the mirror of our culture. Just like the Israelites continue to fall into idolatry, we are in the same place in our culture. We just have new idols. Instead of graven images, we pursue wealth, success, and power.

JT: What about the New Testament?

KV: There are two places I have camped on in the New Testament. First is the passage about the rich young ruler. Jesus quotes to the young man the second tablet of the law, except for the command to not covet. This is so that Jesus can point out that he is coveting money. In that culture they thought that wealth meant righteousness. His whole identity is wrapped up in his wealth. The point of this story is not about the money, but about the heart. Jesus knew that the young man's idol was money (security, status, etc). and loves him so much that Jesus asks the young man to leave his idol behind.

The second place in Scripture is in Luke 12. Jesus tells the story of the rich fool and immediately follows it with the passage about not worrying. The passage shows that God is our provider. It encourages Christians to ask, "Are you going to store riches up for yourself or are you going to let Jesus be the provider in your life?" It is so true of our culture that we haven't let Jesus be the provider.

John Terrill: When you dream about generosity in the church, what do you dream about?

Kendra VanderMeulen: I think of a 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 community. Second Corinthians 8 and 9 illustrates the Macedonians giving more than their capacity based on the grace of God. Paul states that God loves a cheerful giver, and then in the next sentence he says of God that "his grace is sufficient." The New Testament is all about grace. God wants us to have freedom to give freely out of that grace God has given.

I think that the church is really ready for renewal. Just like the Israelites, this renewal means coming to grips with our idols. If we can clean our idols out of the temple, or better said, let Jesus do the cleaning, the church will find an incredible new witness. As the body of Christ, the church will overflow in generosity. This city is known worldwide for its philanthropy but not its Christian philanthropy. It would be such a light in this city if Christians would become radically generous; many lives would be changed and many would take seriously the claims of Christ if they could see such a model. I dream for this day.

Donovan Richards: How can someone with less be generous?

KV: It's a journey in multiple ways. In the early stages of life when you are just starting out, the best thing to do is to discipline yourself to giving and to ask yourself hard questions about lifestyle. Many people nurture desires to purchase items that outstrip the means that God has given them, which crowds out giving. It is important to set a financial finish line, committing to live a certain covenant lifestyle. If God gives more resources, then you can give more out of this abundance.

JT: Are there places where Christians and non-Christians can work together? A shared generosity?

KV: I would say there are some opportunities for Christian and non-Christians to work together. Some of the most effective nonprofits for meeting significant problems in the world are Christ-centered nonprofits. People who don't share a Christian worldview but see the good work that people of faith pursue in God's name can get behind Christian causes. There are some great organizations out there.

Those of us with a faith in Christ know first-hand that there are certain agenda items that God is about: the poor, the great commission, and the church. Thus, Christians should be involved in these three priorities. People without faith in Christ do not share our priorities in the Great Commission and the Church, but they do share a priority on social justice.

JT: Are there places where business can be more generous? Is there a place for more institutional generosity?

KV: The answer is yes. Companies do a number of things that are good. For example, encouraging charitable deduction on the part of their employees through payroll deduction plans and matching gift programs. Several companies have gotten involved in various needs. For example, Campbell-Nelson has a deep involvement with Sri Lanka. They allow their employees to be part of the process of distributing profits from the company to those in need. Pacific Crest Industries does similar things in their involvement with Agros.

And, companies can go even farther than this. They can decide that some or all of their profits will be stewarded for charitable work. There are wonderful strategies they can employ which allow them to continue to reinvest in the growth of the business while simultaneously using the fruit of their efforts to do good works. Helping business owners sort through this is one of my favorite things to do.

JT: Let's shift the conversation. Who are some of your mentors?

KV: There are a few. I have read everything by Randy Alcorn and enjoy his not-pulling-any-punches approach to money in his book Money, Possessions, and Eternity. I also like Tim Keller. Counterfeit Gods is a strong contribution to this area. He's very insightful. Andy Stanley gave a great talk about fear at a conference which is encapsulated in a book called Fields of Gold.

On the not so famous side, there are a couple of people I work with at the National Christian Foundation. Terry Parker is an amazing man of God and a great mentor from afar. Another gentleman named Greg Sperry from the National Christian Foundation visits Seattle two to three times a year. He's just a guy with no pretense. Someone described him to me as just kind of dripping with the Holy Spirit. He's always about the other person. He has nothing to lose or prove, he's just there to serve. He lives modestly and gives a lot away.

DR: Could you name some counterfeit gods that you see as most problematic in today's business world?

KV: Keller mentions power, approval, security, and comfort as the deep idols that are behind all idolatry. Regardless of where our deepest idols are, money is seen as the way to feed these idols. Money is a source of power, source of security, it can provide comfort and it gives us the ticket to be met with approval. It stands for all of these things.

Tim Keller says, "As a pastor, I have heard just about everything. But I have never had anyone come into me and say that I spend too much money on myself." No one comes in to confess greed. But Jesus talks about money and greed more than any of the stuff Christians typically confess. We know when we are committing adultery, but we don't seem to know when we are being greedy.

JT: How do you advise people around giving anonymously or in a public way?

KV: The Seattle Christian Foundation gives people the ability to give anonymously. You can be truly anonymous, private but not anonymous, or public. When giving anonymously, we will not tell anyone where the gift came from. When giving privately, the donation is indirectly associated to you so that the recipient can find out who gave. This is completely up to the donor and the situation. We are just here to facilitate their wishes.

Although some think it is best to not tell the left hand what the right hand is doing, I think it's important to be public about the struggle and journey of giving, in order to help others grapple with the important issue of generosity. It's not about telling the exact amount of money you donate to a given charity, but we do each other a big disservice when we think that the issues of money are completely off-limits that we can't talk about what God is doing in our lives.

JT: What spiritual disciplines have been important to you in order to push against an ungenerous spirit?

KV: The first thing is silence and solitude. In the corporate world, it is difficult to maintain a regular spiritual life. Whenever I don't have silence and solitude, I find myself falling back into fear and a desire for security. Pulling back from generosity is all about fear, and being generous is all about trust. The other thing I would say about the discipline of generosity is that you just have to do it. You have to push yourself beyond what you think is comfortable and find out that the sky doesn't fall.

JT: How would business operate if it were practiced from a reservoir of silence?

KV: It would thrive. The analogy I would use is R&D [research and development]. When companies skimp on R&D, it is the beginning of the end because they are not investing in the future. Some wise business leaders have figured that out, but many more have not discovered the importance of investing in the future. How much better could a business be if they invested in the future by investing in the souls of employees? Investing precious time in your relationship with the God of the universe is the best investment you can make. It allows the Lord to build a reservoir of spiritual strength in you that can carry you through the day. It gives you access to His infinite goodness and wisdom. Thank the Lord that He has made a way for us to walk with Him.

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