Please, Not Another Fundraising Campaign!

Two years ago I served on the Finance Committee of my church. Like many nonprofits facing an unbalanced budget, we debated the merits of yet another fundraising campaign. I was among a minority who felt that another campaign was not the “silver bullet.” I shared my thoughts in an e-mail sent to my fellow committee members.

Believing that some of those ideas may be relevant beyond the parochial boundaries of my church, I share them with the hope that nonprofit professionals will be more strategic and less reactive when raising money. Here’s what I wrote back in July 2007:

Dear friends. First, I acknowledge that the budget needs an infusion of cash. Without question, we need more money and we need to do something quickly and dramatically.  But…

Without the backdrop of a strategic vision, a fundraising campaign may ultimately do greater long-term damage to our finances. If we ask people for financial engagement when too few feel engaged at other levels, they may become calloused to our financial needs. How many hundreds of times have they heard us cry, “The sky is falling!” because expenses exceed revenue?

I begin, though, with the following assumptions:

  1. People everywhere are experiencing donor fatigue. They are saturated with fundraising appeals, not only at church but in their everyday lives. The needs are endless and the appeals keep coming.
  2. In the absence of a compelling, strategic vision, people become disengaged and uninspired. Members truly want to be inspired, engaged and strategically led. The congregation is comprised of good people who want to be involved and who are capable of generously giving more.
  3. Once members feel inspired, engaged and strategically led, they will come alive and be much more involved.

Within the Finance Committee we have discussed various reasons why people should give. I’ve clustered all those messages into the following three categories:

Message Option #1: — Help stop the bleeding!

On rare occasions, this negative message becomes necessary. Each time we push this alarm, however, we diminish our impact. After a while people quit listening, especially if they see no tangible consequences of ignoring the alarm.

Deficit-based fundraising is seldom successful, and even then it works only on a stop-gap, short-term basis. No nonprofit organization has successfully built a long-term, sustainable fundraising program focused on alleviating operational deficits.

Message Option #2: — You have a moral obligation.

This message appeals to one’s sense of duty, and indeed we each have a moral obligation to give. Too often, though, this is a tactic of manipulation. Guilt does no build a long-term partnership with donors. I tend to think of this method of stewardship as a form of taxation. The parallel between giving to the church and paying taxes can be illustrated this way:

The Church’s Message

The Government’s Message

As a member, you have a stewardship obligation to pay tithe and make contributions. As a citizen, you have a patriotic obligation to be a good taxpayer.
The Finance Committee has developed a formula for how much you should contribute. The IRS has developed a detailed tax code for how much you should pay.
Someone is monitoring how much you give to make sure you are carrying your fair share of the burden. Someone is keeping track of how much you pay to ensure that you carry your fair share of the tax burden.
If you don’t give, there will be consequences. If you don’t pay, there will be consequences.

Message Option #3: — You can invest in something big, worthwhile and meaningful.

The right people will respond to this message for the right reasons. They will give cheerfully because a) they are thankful for God’s provision and b) they want to “invest” in the compelling mission of the church. As people become invigorated by being part of a big, strategic movement, they will also be compelled to give of themselves, their time and their money.

The Apostle Paul said, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)

So how do we grow cheerful givers? I’m neither a theologian nor a financial wizard. I’m just a marketing guy with a few observations. In my opinion, cheerful givers are grown and nurtured in an environment that has the following elements:

  1. A compelling vision. A cheerful giver must believe that the church has a strategic vision of what it can and must become. A strong “case for support” is essential. Perhaps a five-year plan could serve as a rallying point for member involvement.
  2. An action plan. A strategic, five-year plan has to be more than a potpourri of great ideas. It has to be prioritized, assigned and resourced. There has to be a structure, with built-in accountability for implementation.
  3. Engagement. People must be engaged in church activities and connected with fellow believers prior to being asked to become more deeply engaged financially.
  4. Investment understanding. People must understand how their money is being invested, and by whom. If they are truly good stewards, church members will demand that their investments yield positive returns. (See next item).
  5. Results. Any good investment must produce a good ROI. Successes, both large and small, must be identified and celebrated. Stories must be told and testimonies must be shared.
  6. Consequences. When the time is right, members must understand the consequences of not being good stewards. It would certainly draw attention to the budget crisis if something dramatic were done to demonstrate the need to cut expenses. Perhaps the first worship service should be discontinued until attendance and giving mandates the additional service. This is a dicey strategy, however, and should never be the primary motivational message.
  7. Gratitude and thanksgiving. People give cheerfully from their hearts when they are aware of the abundance surrounding them. An abundance mindset produces generous contributions, whereas a scarcity mindset results in a downward spiral of negativity and pessimism. Just for fun, Google the two words “abundance” and “scarcity.” Among the 1.6 million results, you will find (even on the first couple of pages) some good sermons and articles contrasting the two paradigms.

My conclusion:  I do not think we are ready for a high-profile fundraising campaign. We should first focus on getting the above elements in place. Then we can move forward on the fundraising campaign.

Epilogue:  Sometimes pundits like me don’t have all the answers. The committee voted to proceed with a fundraising campaign AND it succeeded. We also have new leadership and people now have a vision for tomorrow and a strategy for today. And they are cheerful givers!

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