Lessons in Investing a Life

Is your view of giving and generosity too narrow? Rod Brenneman says his used to be, many years ago. But over the years, his philosophy has grown and expanded to an approach that he wishes he would have had much earlier.

In the early days, Rod and his wife, Shelley, didn’t have a lot to give financially, but they gave consistently to their church and volunteered in ministry. That was long before he was CEO at Seaboard Foods and, after that, CEO at Butterball. Long before he became a committed advocate of Lifesong for Orphans, an organization supporting children through global orphan care ministries, Christian adoptive families, and foster-care initiatives. 

There wasn’t anything wrong with that traditional way of thinking about generosity, Brenneman says. He and Shelley were developing a practice of giving. But he wishes he had uncovered sooner the powerful philosophy of investment that now drives his thinking about stewardship, making him passionate about developing “giving engines” with sustained impact. 

Looking back, if he could talk with his 25-year-old self, he knows exactly what lessons he would share.

Lesson 1: Broaden how you view stewardship
Initially, Rod viewed giving as tithing and volunteering at church. Gradually, through his business leadership experiences, and believers who challenged his thinking about giving, he gained a new perspective. He became acutely aware that everything we have belongs to God, and when we make investments, we do so as stewards of resources that really belong to him. 

“I began to see that there are so many different ways to give … and that you can do so in a way that potentially achieves multiple, ongoing results,” he says.

Rod realized his professional skills could help use business as a solution to the challenges facing ministries and nonprofits. Rather than giving one-time gifts to cover ministry costs that would need to be covered again the next month, he could invest in businesses whose ongoing profits could cover ministry costs again and again. “I had always viewed my vocation as my mission,” he says, but this was different. “It was the understanding that what I’ve done professionally can be a tool to give back.”

Today, Rod’s involvement with Lifesong demonstrates the breadth of this new philosophy. He guides development of businesses like Lifesong Farms, a berry-farming operation, so that profits not only offset ministry administrative costs, but the business itself helps with the organization’s mission. It provides vocational training and jobs for orphans and area families, offering the financial stability that keeps family units together and prevents more children from being orphaned.

“I think about giving so differently now. I love the whole concept of ‘investing’ versus ‘giving,’” Brenneman says. “Investing is more long-term. It’s something that lasts beyond the single gift and benefits many times over and into the future.”

Lesson 2: Find things you’re passionate about and that align with your skills
Through business connections and a God-ordained meeting in an airport security line more than ten years ago, Brenneman met Gary Ringger, Lifesong’s founder and someone equally passionate about business. Soon, the two were dreaming up ways to use businesses as “giving engines” for God’s work.

Lifesong’s approach attracted Brenneman for several reasons. He was touched by their focus on orphans and vulnerable children, providing education, vocational training, and funding support for adoptions. He was impressed with their “100 percent pledge,” guaranteeing every cent of donations fund the ministry because operational costs are covered through other means. Lifesong’s interest in creatively using business to fund ministries and create jobs was the perfect fit for Brenneman.

Now, Brenneman not only invests in Lifesong financially, but he uses his  skills and executive experience, which gives him—among other things—an appreciation for the importance of measuring impact. “Business is highly focused on the bottom line,” Brenneman says. “Those are great lessons. We need to be able to report back to givers the impact their investments have had.” So, through his involvement in Lifesong businesses and ministries, he teaches the leaders he advises how to measure outcomes and impact to inspire more investment.

Lesson 3: When it comes to giving, be focused and involved
Rod’s long-standing relationship with Lifesong is not an accident but is the result of advice he was given years ago. “Everywhere you turn, there’s someone doing something really good. You could give to a hundred or a thousand different things,” he says. “But the advice I received about giving was, ‘Be focused and involved.’”

So, when he found a like-minded organization in Lifesong, he put this advice to work. He took time to understand the organization, and this deeper perspective gave a whole new meaning to his investments. Today, he’s involved with the charity in multiple ways, working closely with Lifesong’s executive leadership team as they scale the organization’s impact, and working directly with Lifesong’s businesses to help them grow and develop. Whether in the boardroom or on vision trips to Africa, Ukraine, and Haiti, Brenneman’s up-close, focused involvement is key to his investment in Lifesong.

Lesson 4:  Utilize tools that maximize the impact of what you’ve been given
Rod says he wishes he had understood much earlier that there are all sorts of financial tools for investing in ministry. Although he had been aware of the National Christian Foundation (NCF), he hadn’t worked with them until his involvement with Lifesong. Soon he began to understand just how many strategic giving options existed.

“I’ve learned a lot about different methodologies and structures in giving,” he says. “NCF has so many tools available … to not only create giving engines, but to do it with the right tax advantages and structures that enable it to be even more effective.” Leaning on the expertise and experience of NCF not only offers new ideas, it provides a wise and effective way to maximize the impact of investments.

Rod says he would share these same lessons not just with his 25-year-old self, but anyone on their own giving journey. The most important thing? Get started now, no matter what you have to give, and get focused and involved, investing not only with your finances, but with all your passion and abilities.