September 2017

10 Common Mistakes in Fundraising for Congregations

1.) Treat fundraising as a means to an end instead of a ministry

“Imagine the ministry we can do once we’ve received these funds!” exclaimed an excited fundraising volunteer a couple months ago. YES! I love dreaming of what is possible together and keeping a parish’s collective eyes on a common goal. And yet, when we fixate on the goal alone, we are tempted to miss an important point: the process of fundraising is itself a powerful and life-giving ministry.

In the Jewish tradition there is a theology of charitable giving, Tikkum Olam, in which God gives us the ministry to repair or fix the world. In the Episcopal Church, through the baptismal covenant, we commit our lives to reconciling ourselves to God and to one another. When fundraising is ministry, lives are transformed in the giving of gifts to change and repair a broken world as we reconcile ourselves to God.

How does this happen? It begins with the act of inviting others to give, requiring both the person inviting and the person receiving the invitation to explore their relationship with money. When considering a gift, one can mindfully ask how their own finances are impacting their health and wellness while asking how to respond to God’s presence in their lives. This is an opportunity to invite others to draw closer to a life-changing God through their giving.

It is also an opportunity, in a time when values-based advocacy groups are seeing increases in their giving (see articles in The New York Times, Time Magazine, and NonProfit Quarterly to learn more), for people to make meaning of their lives and strengthen their individual sense of agency in the world. Humans are at our best when we are about the work of repair and reconciliation; we feel the craving for this work in the world deeply.

The Episcopal Church provides a powerful opportunity for people to do this very work: to invest their resources in God’s Kingdom and to align their values with their giving.

2.) Treat church members as a monolithic body—without individual needs and diversity

This winter, my young son and I were at a doctor’s office for our annual treating of strep throat. Have you ever had a strep culture performed? That’s when they take a Qtip-like instrument and swab the absolute back of your mouth--almost always producing a gag reflex in patients. When the doctor approached my son with said Qtip, there was a lot of explaining and a magical narrative provided with voices to ensure my son wasn’t scared. For me, there was a quick in and out of the Qtip of torture. I didn’t feel slighted: there was no need to prolong the inevitable as my needs were different from my son’s. My son needed time and patience. I needed the swab to be done quickly and without much fuss. The doctor knew we were different and adjusted his approach accordingly.

The same is done every day with ministry. A priest meeting with an individual for pastoral care will have a very different conversation if the person is age 15 or age 75. Or, if the person has a history that requires a sensitive approach. Or, if the person has special needs or requires another loved one in the room at the time. Gender, race, culture, and a previous history are a few variables to be factored into the interaction.

When fundraising is a ministry, the invitation to give becomes an opportunity for transformation. This means a one-size-fits all approach is ineffectual and can be pastorally inappropriate. This may mean moving beyond a singular letter or set of texts and seeking to adapt your congregation’s approach to the various needs of those in the pews.

3.) Don’t communicate; “It’s their fault they aren’t tracking"

Many a Stewardship Chair has wondered how many times the same message has to be communicated in various forms to be heard. The struggle is real!

The answer is simple. People won’t give if they aren’t aware that they are being invited. And in the end, everyone loses when an invitation isn’t heard. In addition, if those in the pews do have diverse needs, then how messages are communicated becomes an important component of fundraising as ministry. Ask any counselor and you will hear that breakdowns in relationships are often characterized by, if not a result of, breakdown in communication.

Before your annual campaign begins, create a plan for what ways you will communicate with the congregation and how often. Facebook, Email, Newsletter, Bulletin Insert, Mission Moment, Adult Formation Meeting, Book Study, Texting----create a plan using your available tools. It may mean using multiple voices repeating the same message. Creating a plan ensures a greater likelihood of the message being heard.

4.) Lose the “Why”, but instead focus on need

I once led a workshop where I asked participants “Why are you engaged in fundraising in your congregation?” and immediately I heard a response from a crusty rector: “to pay our bills, silly!” I followed up with another question, “So…how’s that going?” Chuckles ensued and the rector was good naturedly chagrined. It highlighted for me an important lesson to be communicated: people will not develop a regular discipline of giving simply because an organization needs it.

Inviting people to give their gifts to God and to their faith community is always about the “Why”. What are the core values of your congregation? What is God doing now in your community? How will their gifts be utilized to ensure the congregation’s vision is made a reality? Why would volunteering for a stewardship committee be important? And, finally, why is giving to God a transformative act?

These are the fundamental questions to address why fundraising is of vital importance in your congregation. Begin with the “Why” each year as you determine your fundraising goals and evaluate your strategies for the annual campaign.

5.) Don’t ask. We’ve done this every year. Folks should know to do this.

A congregation was in the midst of a clergy transition a few years ago and opted not to engage in an annual campaign with direct invitations for giving, but simply send out a letter with a pledge envelope. I was brought in the following year for a workshop with the vestry. A young member raised her hand to ask an important question: “What is a pledge?” A newcomer to both this congregation and organized religion, she was unaware of the practice or its impact on her life.

Nationally, over 70% of members in the Episcopal Church were not raised Episcopalian. This is exciting news as the Episcopal Church offers a faith tradition that is compelling and rich. It should not be assumed that newcomers know either how giving can be transformative or how funds contributed support the mission/ministry of the congregation.

Finally, a quick return to #2: People won’t give, no matter how long they’ve attended, if they aren’t aware that they are being invited. And in the end, everyone loses when an invitation isn’t heard.

6.) Don’t tell the truth. You may have had a bad year, but there is no need to admit it.

What to do when a previous year’s fundraising effort didn’t meet your congregation’s goals? Be transparent: show how much was raised, how it was used, and communicate a plan for how things will be done differently in the following year. Fundraising is dependent upon healthy relationships which include admitting when things didn’t go as planned.

Showing an ability to learn, grow and adapt is far more valued by potential donors than face-saving.

7.) Assume donors know you are grateful

How many times do you thank those who pledge to your parish? The best practice for non-profits in thanking donors is seven times per year. Rest assured: this does not mean seven thank -you cards!

An important theological component of Stewardship is the act of saying “thank you”. We are entrusted with gifts and we respond with gratitude whether they come from God or from one another. Humans are wired for gratitude and saying thank you serves a number of purposes:

  • It acknowledges a giver’s generosity
  • It can inform the giver of how their gift was used
  • It can provide a vehicle for formation for folks in our faith communities

Here’s what happened when St. John’s Episcopal Church in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan adopted a discipline of gratitude:

  • Members of the vestry meet with each of the ministry committees, bringing them pastries/cookies and a heartfelt word of thanks for their gifts to the parish.
  • One member, who manages the local deli, was taken by this approach and now includes a “Round Robin thank you” in his weekly meeting with deli staff. Each week a staff member is invited to share a story of gratitude about their work.
  • Another member is a social worker; she was surprised to receive a heartfelt thank you from her boss for her work. This was her first note of thanks in four years of service to her community.
  • Gratitude is contagious. Originating at St. John’s, its impact was felt in other sectors of the Mt. Pleasant Community.

The wise rector, when told of the news of this uprising of gratitude asked, “What if everyone in the world started to do this?” Indeed, what would it look like?

8. Bury the lead (See #4)

Every fall my mailbox is full of long, lengthy letters asking for a donation to various causes. I can always tell if the individual writing the letter is comfortable with the language of giving by the amount of text used to explain why they are inviting me to give. Whether it is a theological explanation, logistical overview of expenses, or an emotional narrative, the invitation of “Will you join me in giving to our organization/church?” can get quickly buried. Sometimes the invitation is left out altogether!

Theological explanation, logistical overview of finances, and a compelling narrative are all very important. However, people can miss the reason for your communication or grow frustrated in trying to decipher the meaning of the text.

One rector once bravely confessed, “I just get so nervous and would rather write about what I’m more comfortable with---theology, liturgy, and my dog!” Fundraising as ministry requires a commitment to healthy relationships. One key way to foster healthy relationships is to communicate intent and expectations in ways that can be both received and heard.

Don’t bury the lead by hiding your invitation in the text. This is an important opportunity for members of your parish to hear and receive an invitation to give.

9. Assume a Capital Campaign will negatively impact your annual campaign

When thinking about fundraising, there may be the assumption that a capital campaign will negatively impact annual giving. Some believe a donor’s willingness to give is capped at a fixed capacity and is immoveable. Anna Doherty, priest-in-charge, St. Aidan’s, Hartford, Wisconsin describes the concern expressed by members of her congregation:

“Our parish can barely raise enough money to meet our operating expenses; how could we raise more for a capital campaign?”

Through a program of increased education about stewardship, and conversations centered around the congregation’s mission and impact in the community, St. Aiden’s capital campaign leadership team discovered that donors’ willingness to give or to prioritize their giving increased. As the campaign progressed, Anna was pleased to report, “Folks at St. Aidan's were surprised--pleasantly so--to discover that capital campaign fundraising can actually increase annual stewardship giving!”

Here’s a visualization exercise I do with people to help change their perception about fixed capacity:

I like pie. To help people overcome their perception that giving capacity is fixed, I invite them to picture a pie as representing donors’ dollars. And then I ask them to visualize cutting the pie into slices to represent their budget. Now here’s the twist: Once they have the picture of a pie in their mind, I invite them to visualize a bigger pie, rather than cutting the smaller pie differently.

10. Apologize for engaging in this holy work

“I’m sorry to have to ask you, but would you be willing to give to our congregation this year?”

A couple years ago I was training a group of volunteers on how to make an invitation in a one-on-one setting. One of the volunteers was recruited by the leadership of the parish not for her desire for the work, but because of her deep relationships in the community.

She gave me the evil eye for the entire training and when we moved to role playing she began with, ““I’m sorry to have to ask you, but would you be willing to give to our parish this year.” I asked her to adopt the lens of ministry. When meeting with individuals, see this as an opportunity to pray with others, learn about their needs, and seek to connect them with Jesus.

Two weeks later she called me---her voice thick with emotion. “I never knew it could be like this.” During her visits, she shared stories, cried with those in need of care, and prayed. She was surprised to be thanked consistently for her visits and for the invitation. In the end, the reluctant worker was transformed in her asking --- and by the ministry of fundraising.

Erin Weber-Johnson is the Episcopal Church Foundation's Program Director for Strategic Resources. She works with Episcopal leaders to faithfully answer the following questions, “What is God calling this organization to be/do?” and “How do we respond?” Erin provides financial and leadership resources through a broad range of services. She has facilitated diocesan workshops, vestry retreats, and live webinars on annual giving, volunteer engagement, generational giving characteristics, and debt retirement. Utilizing a year-round stewardship model, Erin has worked with parishes on annual giving and successfully completed capital campaigns widely ranging in size.

Previously, Erin was a grants officer at Trinity Wall Street in New York City, a consultant for the United Thank Offering (UTO), and she and her husband served as missionaries in Taiwan. Erin holds a master’s degree in public administration from New York University and is a member of St. John the Evangelist Church in St. Paul, Minnesota.


This article is part of the September 2017 Vestry Papers issue on Stewardship