Many clergy are allergic to money, especially asking for it. But this allergy to fundraising is actually in direct contradiction of our theologies. We act as though incarnational theology was not taught at our seminary. But if we think for even a moment about what is meant by incarnational theology—that God is in the meat of things, that earthly experiences are meant to be holy—we will see that raising money need not seem objectionable. God exists in this earthly creation too.

Many clergy don’t ask other people for money simply because they are so afraid of suffering the embarrassment of being told “no” that they just keep saying, “I’ll do anything for you, Jesus, but please don’t make me ask anyone for money.” In this article, I propose some hows and whys to counter that tendency.

I want to do more of a “how to” than a “why to” here. Still, the whys cannot be ignored. They have to do with what we love. Whatever we love we can save, says Alice Walker. Likewise, I say whatever we love we can fundraise for. If we love our congregations, their programs, and their hopes, then we can raise money for them. Money is faith raising as much as fundraising, and when we are in love with our work and our congregations, our faith raises the funds.

I suggest clergy think of asking for money as a way of being steeped in incarnational joy and being made courageous by the love we have for what we do. Imagine a small thing like the fear of rejection getting in the way of something large like ministry! So gather your courage and ask—with joy—your friends, family, congregations, and even strangers for money.

Believe it or not, many people you know have more money than you think they have and want to give it to you. One wealthy member of my congregation recently gave us $50,000 to start a community ministry program. Remember, too, that money begets money. In a congregation I once led, we gave away three million dollars of our 26-million-dollar endowment. The results leveraged over 12 million dollars in foundation grants, one for a micro lending project and another for a community organization. I know most congregations don’t have endowments they can afford to give away, but if and when they do donate even a little of that money to other causes, they show individuals and foundations that they care about their ministries. That care leverages additional gifts.

It is important to understand that it is the quality of the institution itself that raises the money, at the same time creating trust in you as the leader of the organization. This trust, in turn, creates the foundation for relationships, which are key to fundraising. In fact, raising money is all about relationships. The art of the ask starts and stops with developing enough of a relationship with others so that you feel comfortable asking them for the joy of participating in your project financially.

Fundraising all starts with the pastor’s original relationship with the congregation. Your primary relationship is with the governing structure of the congregation, and you should always be asking them for more money. Be thoroughly involved in the budget development process and in the raising of these monies, always with the attitude that what the congregation does is worth funding. The smile on your face while talking about the congregation’s ministries is what raises these funds.

In addition to the congregation’s governing body, there are individuals in every congregation, modest or not, who have more money to give. They are giving it to their friends, those whom they trust and with whom they are in relationship. By building your relationship with the congregation, individual donors will also give to you. Relationship is 90 percent of fundraising. The rest is tactics, and the tactics differ for special projects and annual campaigns.

The Annual Budget

In a strong and well congregation, the annual campaign is pulled off by eager and able lay people. Clergy need not be involved except at the end of the campaign, when we notice who gave last year but not this year, or in thanking those who made new gifts.

Set up your campaign with clear beginning and ending dates, and a clear “clean-up” phase two weeks before the ending date, the part of the campaign in which the pastor contacts people to learn why they did not pledge. Your Web site and campaign literature should show clearly the beginning, end, and clean-up phases of the campaign, and people should know in advance that the pastor will be calling if they do not pledge.

When we ask our members about this, their answers may not be pretty. We may learn that their reasons for not contributing had to do with us and our leadership, or worse, are due to a family crisis that has shamed them and made them less able to give. But if you let people know that they will hear from you only at the end of the annual campaign and that the call will be pastoral, you will be surprised to see how simple the annual campaign is.

This model depends on fully practicing incarnational theology. That means providing nearly constant education about money and what it does for us: “We strive to be the most well-run not-for-profit in the city. We pay our staff well. We want well-trained, highly competent professionals working for us because we value our ministry so highly. We don’t skimp but make beautiful our buildings and our maintenance and our administration of same. We are in favor of strong operating budgets. We love them!” Again, a smile should be on our faces as we make these somewhat nonsacrificial claims. In this way we communicate that, because we love administration and fundraising, we can’t wait until the end of the campaign to make our calls. We know they will involve relationship building.

Special Projects

When fundraising for special projects, first figure out who you know who might have money to contribute, perhaps someone who dresses expensively or drives an expensive car. If you can’t think of anyone, ask around. People know. You also know. You don’t need the fancy computer-based snooping tools that some fundraisers use, although they won’t hurt you. (Any professional fundraiser in a local or community foundation can teach you how to research your people and find out if they have money or family foundations.) I would argue, however, that you already know. Your parents know. Your siblings know. Your congregation’s president knows. So ask them. Also ask the congregation in public settings, such as in your annual report, on your Web site (where you can always post a wish list), in your sermons, and in committee meetings. Say things like, “We simply can’t create this soup kitchen without a major donor. Do you know anybody you think might help us?” Eventually somebody will tell you who might be able to do so.
When you think you have enough of a relationship with a person whom you have identified as having resources, ask if he or she would be willing to meet with you to discuss providing financial help for a particular project. How do you know if you have enough relationship? One benchmark is that you have known the person for at least six months and have had at least three bonding experiences or conversations with him or her. Your intuition will give you a sense as well. (You can also do fundraising with foundations, but 80 percent of the money you raise will come from individuals you know.)

When you do speak about money, don’t hem and haw. Be direct. After you’ve asked for a meeting to discuss a financial contribution, don’t change the subject or apologize. Stay quiet. Let the person process your request. Once he or she has agreed to the meeting, you are home. The person most likely is not going to decline to contribute. If that were going to happen, it probably would have occurred when you requested the meeting, with the person saying something like, “I wish I could help you
, but I can’t.” People who have money know a lot about saying no.

If the person does say no, don’t be discouraged. Understand. This is the time for relationship balancing and maintenance. Truly understand. Don’t be foolish enough to take it personally—unless the donor tells you that he or she is declining your request for a reason that is indeed personal. Keep in mind that just because people say no once or to a specific request doesn’t mean they will always say no, so continue to develop the relationship. At the end of the meeting, you can always say, “May I ask you for a gift next year?” After that initial meeting, continue to invite the person to lunch, breakfast, or coffee periodically, but don’t ask for money at these meetings. Just continue the relationship. Money is important, but it is not everything. There may come a time when you feel comfortable asking for money again, or there may not. But don’t lose the relationship.

If the person you have approached agrees to talk with you and your meeting takes place in a restaurant, pay the check in advance. You are not interested in the small donation of lunch so much as a larger donation for the project under discussion. It may also help to take someone from your board with you to attest to the power of the project. That is wiser in a secular situation than in a pastoral situation, where the potential donor may want to say yes or no based on confidential health or family matters. But if you have a board member who can sing your praises and those of the project, why not bring him or her along? If the donor has a need to divulge sensitive information, you can always take a personal visit later. If shyness prevails and for some reason you just can’t make the ask personally, send someone else to do the asking after you have built the relationship. People are giving away money all the time! You will not receive any if you don’t ask.

At the beginning of the meeting, chat informally with the person for 10 minutes or so and then make the ask. Have a number and a timeframe fixed to it: “Can we count on you to support the Youth Leadership Project (name it) with $5,000 in the coming year?” It is often helpful to align the values of your program with those of the potential donor. Because you have a relationship with this person, you already know that he or she is really concerned about, let’s say, the next generation. That’s why you mention that Project A really helps the next generation: “Your gift will be well-used in Project A because we are really helping the next generation. I hope we can count on you for $5,000 this year.” Again, ask for a contribution and stay quiet. Many people mess up the ask by blabbering on after it, saying something foolish like, “Of course, I can understand if you can’t afford it this year” or “I know you are giving generously to the congregation already.” Train yourself not to back down! Ask and be quiet. It is in that silence (very similar to the silence of a therapeutic interaction in its growth potential) that the covenant completes itself. When the person says yes, thank him or her and confirm aloud the terms and timeframe of the agreed-upon grant.

Following the meeting, follow up with a letter stating what the person offered to contribute, over what term, and for what reason. Indicate in the final paragraph that you want an ongoing grant, but do so gently: “You made my day when you said yes to providing $5,000 for the Youth Leadership Project. Your trust in that project will allow us to hire a professional fundraising consultant to secure our budget for the next three years. I will make sure you get ongoing and final reports about how your money was used—and hope that you will be so happy about the outcomes that you will contribute again next year.”
Keep superb records for yourself and the donor: Is the money inside your operating budget or in a special place? If the donor ever asks where to find the reporting, will you be able to provide that information quickly and easily? Who is in charge of the reporting and accounting? Who writes the checks? Do you trust that person to maintain impeccable records? Also, make reports to your donors often and regularly. When I have major donors, I make sure to “touch” them every three months or so either in person or via letter with stories and information about the good work being done with their contribution. These three contacts with good news about what their money is doing are crucial before you re-ask, which I typically do on the anniversary of the initial grant. There are other ways to stay connected to your donors as well. Perhaps they will want to come for a site visit or sit in on a staff meeting. They should surely be invited to the annual meeting or dinner and any public events the organization has.

If you are turned down when you ask someone for a donation, still write a letter of thanks and articulate how you heard the person’s reason for declining your invitation to contribute. In these situations, remember that relationship is everything. After all, it is the reason we exist as congregations in the first place.

Whatever happens, don’t remain—or become—theologically and psychologically allergic to fundraising. If we do so, so much is lost. The first casualty is joy. The second is our institution. If we get over these small obstacles, a large field for joyful ministry opens up.


Questions for Reflection

  1. What happened the last time you asked someone for money? What did you learn from that experience? 
  2. Every ask is custom-designed. How would you design your next ask based on what you learned?