Fundraising: A Spiritual Activity

Imagine that you sat down with a member of your congregation and started a conversation with, “Let me tell you what God is doing through our congregation.”? I think most people would be thrilled to have a conversation like this. It feels deeply spiritual.

But what if that conversation ended with, “Would you consider a gift of $5,000 to allow our congregation to live out that mission?”  Who still wants to be in that conversation? I suspect many church leaders would not. There is a palpable discomfort of talking about money. It feels worldly, dirty, or tainted. It’s something other organizations do, but not the church! But consider:

If we come back from asking someone for money and we feel exhausted and somehow tainted by unspiritual activity, there is something wrong.

Those aren’t the words of the latest fundraising guru. They come directly from Henri Nouwen, renowned priest and author, known for his writing and speaking about the spiritual life. In his very brief book, A Spirituality of Fundraising (which I highly recommend), Nouwen continues:

As a form of ministry, fundraising is as spiritual as giving a sermon, entering a time of prayer, visiting the sick, or feeding the hungry.

Really? How is this possible?

Fundraising is proclaiming what we believe in such a way that we offer other people an opportunity to participate with us in our vision and ministry.

When our congregations have a clear sense of God’s purpose for ministry, we have the exciting opportunity to invite people to generously provide the finances to expand it.  If we truly believe that we’re doing what God calls us to do, how can we not invite people to financially make that vision turn into reality?

On a synodical level, much discernment work has gone into clarifying our purpose. As a synod, we develop and equip spiritual, resilient congregations and leaders.  We accompany partners around the globe. Or, to put it another way, “We are equipping congregations and leaders to follow Jesus into a changing world.” As a synod, we don’t ask individuals or congregations to give to support a $2.1 million budget. We invite them to participate in this mission that God has given us and we have specific stories showing what God is up to.

What does your congregation believe in such a way that you can offer other people the opportunity to participate with you in your congregation’s vision and ministry?

What part of God’s great mission invigorates people in your corner of God’s kingdom? Once you have clarity about that, then inviting people to be a part of it is easy. You simply tell the story of God at work among you and allow people to join in that work.

We don’t invite people to meet a budget goal. We’re simply inviting them to be a part of what God is already doing in our midst, and God’s activity is not limited by budget spreadsheets. We invite people to unleash our congregation’s potential to make a significant impact in people’s lives, both within and outside of our congregations.

Fundraising not only makes ministry possible, it opens people take steps on a spiritual journey, a journey of generosity. God works in the midst of it all, building faith and trust in individuals while expanding God’s ministry through communities of faith.

This article appeared in the Summer 2018 edition of River Crossings, a newsletter of the Southeastern Minnesota Synod
Pete Reuss

The Witness of Giving

Last week my wife, a recent kidney donor, gathered with over 400 others in Chicago to set the Guinness Book record for the most living donors assembled in one place. As she and other donors visited, they talked about how uncomfortable it is to be recognized for their organ donations. Yet they all understand that only awareness and engagement will motivate others to consider organ donation themselves.

Financial donors are much the same way. One of the basic tenets we at GSB teach is the concept of donor witness. When we invite others to join us in making a commitment to a campaign or appeal, the most effective way to ask is to begin by sharing our own story of generosity. It is not boastful or arrogant; rather, it is the beginning of a deep conversation about what drives us all to give: the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, in gratitude for the many blessings God has given to us.

Henri Nouwen, in his book A Spirituality of Fundraising, discusses the taboo nature of talking about money. “The reason for the taboo is that money has something to do with that intimate place in our heart where we need security…” When we share our joy in giving, though, we share the living, daring confidence that God gives us what we need and that God is our ultimate security. We are then free to be generous and enjoy the community that comes from a deep conversation about what is really important.

How do you begin to share your generosity witness?

Start by answering these questions:

  • What was the most generous act you ever witnessed?
  • Who taught you generosity?
  • Describe your favorite giving experience. Why did it feel so good?

As you share your enthusiasm, others will begin to think about those questions in the context of their own lives. Your witness to giving and generosity will have just changed the conversation from one of asking to one of invitation.

Opportunities to Respond to the New Tax Law to Benefit Your Organization

There is much unknown about the effects the new tax law will have on philanthropic giving in 2018. Since most of my work is with congregations and church-related organizations, I will limit my perspective to how the church and related organizations should respond in 2018 to the new tax plan.  Many philanthropic leaders are nervous and some are even afraid. This is natural in a time of change. I don’t think we need to worry, but organizations which rely on donations should make certain they are telling their story well and positioning themselves to remain in the front of the mind of donors.

One reason churches and other charities see such large revenues in December is that people are wanting to give before the end of the year so that they can claim this charitable deduction. The tax code has for decades held provision to allow for charitable deductions by those who “itemize deductions”. While the charitable deduction will still be allowed, the new standard deduction has basically doubled which will result in fewer people claiming this deduction. This means that people are getting as much or more deduction without having to itemize.

Approximately 70% of Americans in 2016 took the standard deduction and did not itemize. People with larger incomes tend to be more likely to itemize. Reasonably, the effect of losing the charitable deduction could be felt more by those with larger incomes who are currently your donors (https://taxfoundation.org/who-itemizes-deductions/). At the same time, most Americans with larger incomes will be receiving significant tax breaks.  And a few of these large donors will still choose to itemize deductions.

I encourage you to not focus on deductibility of gifts. In my eighteen years of development experience with the church and church related organizations, I have found very few donors who are “deduction motivated”. Many appreciate that they can claim the deduction for tax purposes, but that isn’t why they give. Churches and other non-profit organizations should focus on what motivates donors to give and how to do a better job of raising up that motivation.

The giving landscape is changing. Donors are giving to fewer and fewer charities. For years, the church has been receiving a smaller percentage of overall giving in America. This has had nothing to do with tax deductibility, but with the failure to tell our missional story—a story of what God is doing in our world and through our churches and ministries today. I must acknowledge that even as the church receives a smaller percentage of gifts overall that giving over the last two years has been at record levels.

Yes, mid-level and larger donors may lose out on their ability to deduct their gift to your organization. Many of these givers will actually realize a greater deduction with the new standard deduction and most will have more money because their taxes will go down.

Historically, churches and charities have benefited when people have had more money at their disposal, but the benefit is not as much as might be expected. Instead, both churches and charities improve giving to the greatest extent when telling their stories well—stories of lives changed, impacts made as a result of the generosity of donors.

What I have seen from many churches is simply telling a financial snapshot.  They share how much expenses exceed revenue and tell people the need is for more money.  This is simply sharing information and it makes it about money and not mission. A college once shared with me the cost of the electric bill. This is not motivating to most donors, especially me. Sometimes, we share good information, such as we had 100 children participate in Vacation Bible School and this is good, but it can be better.  The church should stop sharing statistics and numbers and start telling stories of impact. Tell the story of the youth who helped lead Vacation Bible School and came to understand their God given gifts.  Tell stories of how pastoral care helped someone see God active in their life.  Tell the story of how Sabbath rest in worship renews people who feel beaten up by the world.

There will be some churches and church related organizations that struggle next year and they will blame the new tax law. If so, I hope they will have talked to their mid-range and upper-range donors to find out for certain that is what happened.  At the same time, I hope they will evaluate how they tell their story and take inventory of what God is doing through their ministry and how they communicate that.  I think storytelling is far more important than tax law.

To best position your organization and your most faithful and generous supporters to navigate this new tax code, consider implementing these steps as the new year begins:

  • In January and February have intentional conversations with 12-20 mid to upper range donors ($3,600 and up in most churches/$1,000 and up in most organizations). Ask them what the new tax law means to them. Together, determine strategies to help them. For instance, some donors may start giving every other year to lump their giving to take a deduction every other year. Being aware of their giving intentions will enable better financial planning for your organization’s leadership.
  • After the first quarter, evaluate each donor (or donors of a certain level or above), and check on how their giving compares to previous years (or their pledge). Contact any who are behind to encourage their continued support.
  • Evaluate the stories of impact that you share and determine that they are reaching your target audience.
  • Invite a few donors to share their intention to maintain or even increase their giving in the coming year because they love the ministry of the organization and feel it makes a difference. They can even state that the tax law is not a factor in their giving decision.
  • Provide prospective supporters a vision for more ministry that your organization can provide. People give to vision. Shrinking organizations normally get less money as donors become underwhelmed by the limited impact.
  • Encourage donors to give appreciated stock. They still avoid capital gains taxes

Ministry needs will continue to grow in the future. Most of the churches (over 60) and organizations (over 10) that I worked with in 2017 are expecting more ministry to happen in 2018 than in 2017 and I believe that they will experience that. Several churches are expecting 20% or more growth for ministry in the next year and givers have indicated their commitment to support this growth. While the new tax code has left non-profit organizations concerned about its impact on givers, I remind you that the tax bill was working through Congress as organizations made these plans and as donors made their commitments to support them. The needs addressed by these ministries and the donor desire to partner with them supersedes tax reform.

The world is changing around us but as we vision a world that God is active in, we can dream boldly and live into those dreams.

Contact Mike at ward@gsbfr.com

For information about the tax law itself, click here.

Click here to read an interesting article about the impact to giving.

Why accept less than the goal?

We raised more than $2 million but we were still 15% short of the goal. Should we accept long-term financing and just “suck it up” as missing the total need?

As we reached the final months of the appeal, rather than accepting less than what we needed, campaign leadership re-engaged our efforts.  We asked two members who chose not to give to the appeal for a challenge gift. One of them stepped forward with a $100,000 challenge gift for more contributions over and above what was already committed. A zero dollar donor to the original appeal became a six figure challenge donor!

Those who were generous to the original appeal were invited to extend their gift.  Those who didn’t engage the first appeal were invited to new or increased gifts. The entire congregation was engaged to reach what I consider “excellence” rather than accept a shortfall.

Rather than accepting anything but complete success has led this congregation to needing to inform donors what will happen with gifts in excess of the total need.  What a great way to enforce an abundance mentality.

Out with the Old, In with the New

Whether personally or professionally, a new year often includes new strategies and new goals. We’re a predictable lot: always looking for the new, shiny, quick fix from health and fitness to fundraising—seeking strategies which will magically realize our new goals with little effort and great rewards.

There’s always more data to research, more social media to engage, a new generation to court. And the chase is on—trading tried-and-true practices for glitzy new gimmicks. Don’t misunderstand; there’s a valuable and necessary place for testing and implementing new strategies in your fundraising program. Data research should be conducted; implementing social media strategies and engaging new donors are important elements to an effective fundraising program. They key is maintaining a healthy proportion of known successful strategies while exploring new strategies.

Now that the year has turned, and by now your books are closed, it’s time to review your fundraising results from last year.  Did you gain first time donors? Did you retain previous donors?  Did your donors grow in their average gift size, or number of gifts? Celebrate your successes, and mark your challenges.  Let this review inform what strategies you consider in the year to come.

Good fundraising programs test new strategies and methods in tandem with long-known practices of fostering donor-centered relations which build financial support through well-developed and inspiring stories of mission and outcomes.

In this new year, continue to develop the strategies which have shown to be successful in your efforts: personalized engagement, clarity of message, responsive and transparent reporting of outcomes. Build on the relationships of those who already support and encourage your organizational mission. Then, based on your results from last year, intentionally incorporate new strategies which support your current plan and don’t monopolize vital resources of time and finances. It’s the key to sustainable long-term growth of your fundraising efforts.

Jennie Wolf Smith

For information on how GSB can help to kick-start your planned and deferred giving efforts with a time- and cost-effective plan, contact me at Jennie@gsbfr.com.

How Congregational Stewardship Benefits Within the Context of the Pastoral and Lay Servant Leadership Model

As most pastors know, inculcating a servant leadership model is an effective way to lead a congregation.  After all, Jesus was the ultimate servant leader, was he not?  (John 13: 1-17)

How does this leadership model work, however, when incorporated into a congregational stewardship effort?  I would suggest to you that it works extremely well, and benefits everyone involved–the donor, the stewardship committee member, the stewardship chair, and yes, the pastor.

Servant leadership is defined by a relationship wherein those with power (real or imagined) lead by providing the necessary resources and encouragement to those who follow.  An example, in its most basic form, is a CEO who is constantly asking the Vice President “what do you need to be successful?”  That question is parroted throughout the company, and the role of the leader is to provide the tools with which the worker on the assembly line has the tools necessary to produce a widget in the most efficient manner, but also provides opportunity and satisfaction.  Endemic in this model is a shared respect between management and labor.

To be sure, the pastor is not management and the parishioner is not labor.  There are parallels, however, which when introduced can improve mission, ministry and finances in a congregation.

Stewardship–the act of sharing God’s blessings with others–is one of the most important ministries that occurs in a congregation.  It is most certainly NOT just an effort to raise money to keep the doors open.  It is a spiritual exercise which, when done properly, motivates parishioners to focus on mission within and beyond the local community.

How does a successful stewardship effort look within the servant leadership model?

Education of leaders is key to stewardship.  The pastor and the stewardship chair should budget time and money to learn stewardship techniques annually.  They then must come back to the stewardship committee and share what they have learned.  This is a basic tool for success.

Clarity.  The pastor and stewardship chair must recruit committee members with clear job descriptions.  Those job descriptions must state precisely what the volunteers are being asked to do.  The job descriptions must be clear that committee members will be asked for their written financial commitment before they will be allowed to ask others for theirs.  There should be clearly defined mission goals for the congregation provided to the committee members so that they are able to elucidate the precise case for support.  Nothing that happens during a committee member’s tenure should be a surprise.

Vision must be shared and in the process must motivate.  A servant leader must exude excitement about what could be if the mission plan were fully funded.  Additionally, the pastor as servant leader should not save the “stewardship sermon” for the second Sunday in September.  Stewardship is a topic that should be addressed all year long.

The donors–members of the congregation–must be given time to learn about the mission goals, and must be given enough information to make comfortable decisions.  Information must be clear and in various formats–temple talks, social media and website, newsletters, etc.  In this case, information is the tool that will make the widget better.  Similarly, none of the information shared should be a surprise to a parishioner, since the planning was exhaustive and inclusive.

Another tool to provide the donor is a clear and specific request.  No donor should have to wonder what is being asked of them.  Are you asking for a written pledge this year?  Are you asking for a 5% increase over last year’s giving?  What is our  financial goal as a congregation?  Are you asking me for $25,000?  Again, clarity equals respect.

What tools to make my gift are available?  It is important to provide your donors with a number of ways in which they may make their gifts–electronic fund transfer, gifts of appreciated stock, IRA disbursements just to name a few.  These are the tools that servant leaders provide.

Last but certainly not least, a servant leader gives–or at least shares–credit.  Donors must be thanked meaningfully, frequently, and by the pastor as well as the stewardship team.  Just because we are sharing the gifts that God has given us does not mean we do not deserve thanks.  One line in a business office giving receipt is not proper thanks.  There should be thank you letters, phone calls, handshakes (hugs?) in the narthex, and appropriate recognition.

How does your congregation compare?  Is stewardship a way to pay the light bill, or is it a vital part of your ministry?  Does your leadership provide the tools necessary for meaningful giving that excites and encourages?  How could you become a better servant leader when it comes to stewardship?

Don’t Hang Up Too Soon

A donor called to make a $5,000 gift in memory of her recently deceased mother.  The donor was interested in what people today are concerned about—effectiveness of our programs, our efficiency rating, the people we serve.

We discussed a number of possibilities regarding how the gift could be used. After asking a number of questions about our organization and its programs, she decided where she wanted her gift to go.

She was ready to hang up when I asked her to tell me about her mother.

She was caught off guard, but proceeded to tell me what a loving mother and wife she had been, how dedicated she had been to her church, and how uncomfortable her mother would have been to see the big fuss everyone had made over her at her funeral.

We visited about her mother for 20 minutes, she on the east coast of the United States and I in the west.  I asked questions about her mother’s life because I was interested. She found some catharsis in sharing stories about her mother.

As development people, we are about people and ministry.  We are not just about dollars.  We seek funding because of the difference that funding will make in the lives of those less fortunate, or those who are hurting, or those needing guidance and comfort… and because of the difference those gifts will make in the lives of the donors who respond to God’s grace by giving gifts.

I could have hung up the phone after we determined how the $5,000 was to be used.  That would have been a somewhat cold transaction,  By asking about her mother, and listening to the story of her life, this woman was given another opportunity to share the story of her mother… and celebrate the life they shared together.

Introducing Your Ministry to Potential Donors

Small, intimate events are a wonderful way to introduce prospective donors to your ministry and its mission.  There are critical elements that will make—or break—these events:

Encourage your best donors to invite friends, colleagues, or other members of their congregation.  Not only is this a great way to build attendance, it involves your current donors and helps cultivate their dedication and continued support.

Keep the event SHORT.  From the moment attendees arrive to the time they are free to leave, no more than an hour should have elapsed.  If done well, many will choose to stay and visit anyway.

The speakers should include the CEO and the host donor.  The host donor speaks to why the ministry is so important to them; the CEO should share a bit about the mission and how it is changing lives for the better; and the host donor thanks attendees for coming and encourages them to welcome a visit from staff in the coming week.  The event adjourns.  Most importantly, each one speaks PASSIONATELY and BRIEFLY.

Attendees should fill out some type of contact card, with the understanding that staff will be calling within one week to follow up and invite engagement in the ministry.

FOLLOW UP!  This event is simply a waste of time and money if you expect the prospective donors to call you.  Do not wait…carpe diem!

Don’t Publish Bad News

I was a visitor at a worship service several months ago, and among the announcements in the bulletin was this line:

Received last week: $2,238.53
Needed each week: $2,750.00

After the service, I asked a member of the congregation if that deficit announcement was unusual.  She said, “No, we’re always behind.”

If you see this kind of announcement in your church bulletin, or even in the monthly newsletter, please try to get it eliminated. Why? It creates a negative image and does nothing to increase offerings.

Dividing the annual budget by 52 Sundays just gives inaccurate information, particularly during low attendance months. Neither income nor expenditures are exactly the same over the course of the year. Members wonder how they can see a deficit all year and then the deficit miraculously goes away at the beginning of the next year.

How, then, can we adequately report the financial status of a congregation? The amount received can be reported along with a sentence or two about a ministry that offerings help support. I also recommend giving updates in quarterly financial statements rather than bulletins or newsletters for the whole world to see. If I am looking for a new church home, I’m not going to be inclined to join a congregation that advertises it’s in debt.

Transparency is important, so financial statements prepared for council meetings can also be made available for those who are curious or have a need to know about the details of how the money comes and goes. I also recommend to finance committees who absolutely obsess about “being behind” to go to individuals and ask them to make up the perceived “deficit,” beginning with members of the finance committee. That usually gets them off that subject.

See the People

As a development officer for a private, Christian college, this phrase echoed through prospect meetings and team goals: See the people. As our society further embraces the convenience of social media, the ease of e-transactions, the impression of personalization to masses, it seems as though something important is missing.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m a proponent of social media. I’ve reconnected with old friends on Facebook and am building a professional network on LinkedIn. I appreciate the ease of online giving and emails. As a donor, I accept nothing less than personalization in correspondence, even though I know it may be a thinly veiled impression. But organizations that rely heavily on these tactics are missing a critical piece: the personal interaction.

Non-profit organizations are regularly seeking ways to set themselves apart from a host of charities vying for financial support, to show themselves—and their cause—worthy of funding. As other organizations continue to send flyers and mass emails, one of the most effective ways to set your organization apart is to “see the people.”

There is little substitute for sitting face-to-face with a current or prospective donor, sharing the life-changing work of your organization and the challenges it faces, answering questions and relieving concerns, reminiscing about their personal history with your work, and communicating the opportunity for them—specifically them—to make an impact in the organization’s future. Donors have a choice in allocating their resources. Make your organization rise above the others with personal attention.