“How can we persuade people to give more?” Not surprisingly, this is one of the most frequent questions I encounter in my work as a congregational consultant. Whether I’m consulting mainly on strategic planning, governance change, or growth plans (I rarely come in as a fundraiser any more), clients always want to raise more money.
One way to respond to such questions is by teaching better fundraising techniques. Most congregations approach their donors so haphazardly that any of a dozen practical ideas, applied with diligence, will increase results substantially. Even contradictory ideas work: if you’ve tried to do the Every Member Canvass for a few years, Consecration Sunday may give you a quick 10- or 20-percent bump—and vice versa. There’s nothing wrong with that! Even slightly increased giving raises morale, eases stress for leaders, and creates planning options.
Better giving also has spiritual benefits: donors, reflecting on their increased generosity, decide they must be more religious than they previously thought. If only to reduce cognitive dissonance, they start thinking and behaving more religiously. Go ahead: find and use some fresh fundraising techniques.
Techniques, though, can take you only so far. New fund-raising methods, like new exercise and diet programs, often produce results for a while, and then give way to a relapse. It’s hard, without a deeper change, to keep them up.
Lasting change requires a dive into the psychology of faith to look at deeper motivations. Guilt once was a prime inducement to financial giving, and it still works with some people. But most nongivers born since 1945 see nothing to feel guilty about: the sense of obligation to support congregations simply isn’t there.
Today, speaking about the joy and other benefits that come with generous giving usually works better. Generous people actually are happier than stingy ones, so it’s possible to convince people to be quite generous out of motives that are basically selfish. To the extent that you are talking to a sanctuary full of people who already have a strong commitment to your congregation, conversation on the spiritual rewards of giving can be fruitful—for both givers and the treasury.
The catch, though, is that you probably are not talking to a sanctuary full of people with a strong commitment to your congregation. You are more likely talking to a motley crowd of people, each with many loyalties and obligations, each with more ideas about what to do with money than money. I’m not talking about selfish pleasures—we don’t even need to go there. I’m talking about worthy goals like putting children through college, caring for parents, and preparing for retirement. Each of us is aware of many worthy opportunities for major gifts: our beloved college, the hospice that cared for a dying parent, or the art museum, symphony or theater that elevates our hearts and souls. (And did I mention selfish pleasures? Those too.)
To inspire people to give more, we need to look beyond technique, beyond the motivations of potential donors, and take a hard look at ourselves and at the institutions that we lead. Congregations compete for gifts with worthy charities, as well as sellers of enticing goods and services. Our competitors have become sophisticated at collecting and processing information, utilizing paid and volunteer fund raisers, and maintaining positive relationships with donors—particularly large donors.
Meanwhile, most congregations do what we have done since the invention of the “stewardship pledge drive” in the 1890s. When congregations ask for money, several well-established notions get in the way, all of which distort our mental picture of our institution and its relationship to donors:
- Everyone agrees that religious institutions merit support. Even in Southern and Midwestern towns where “everybody” goes to church, hardly anybody feels an obligation any more to support your church if they prefer another. In most places, non-affiliation has become a reputable option. Congregations need to make their case before a skeptical public that gives no church or synagogue a free pass.
- People give as individuals. Even leaders who can usually “see systems” still imagine that people sign their checks and pledge cards in a vacuum, out of strictly personal values and beliefs. Giving is a social act. It matters a great deal who asks, who knows, and how much others give. The single most powerful motivation for giving—as secular fundraisers know—is the desire to pull one’s weight with a peer group. Saying “The Bible says we ought to tithe” has little impact, but if you can say, “Each of our top leaders as pledged to give 5% of his or her gross income to the congregation and 5% to other charities” can make an enormous difference to a congregation’s giving. The specific numbers matter less than the leadership example.
- People all think about their giving the same way. Some religious leaders know this should be true, and I won’t try to argue with them. But unless your congregation is extremely stable—or, in other words, is slowly dying—then you have some people who just walked into the door, including some potential major donors who may never join as members, as well as many who are long schooled in the congregation’s current attitude toward giving. Sending them all the same letter, the same canvasser, the same pitch, and the same “table of percentages” can only reinforce the sense that—at least where giving is concerned, you don’t know them.
- People give to vision, not to budgets. There is, of course, a grain of truth in this: treasurers who stand up and intone the budget, line by line, inspire no one. On the other hand, a congregation generally can raise more money for a building project than the annual campaign. Donors pay attention to the size of the vision—as measured in dollars—when they decide the size of their gifts. This point is especially important for the congregation with a “large” endowment. An endowment seems large only in comparison to a small vision, and there is no clearer indicator of a vision’s size than the budget it produces. So yes—people give to vision. But how much they give depends upon the size of the vision as expressed in the budget, and on how well leaders connect one to the other.
In short, to get people to give more money, a congregation has to step up to its place in a newly competitive fundraising marketplace. The governing board and senior clergy articulate a clear and distinctive vision—not as an occasional exercise, but as a central year-round task. Clergy and lay leaders build relationships with potential donors as donors all the time. Asking for money, thanking donors, and asking for more money become regular parts of congregational life, just like asking for and thanking volunteers.
The congregation that succeeds in today’s fundraising marketplace makes the case that the specific good it does deserves support from all who hear its strong fundraising voice—which then it uses well and often.
Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable blog
Dan Hotchkiss is a senior consultant with the Alban Institute. “Faithful Finances: Getting People to Give More” originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of Clergy Journal (logosproductions.com)
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At wit’s end over what to do about congregations under your care when they are embroiled in conflict?
Let Susan Nienaber help you sort it out.
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