This Is How Development Works

A while ago, I was on the phone with a member of my Board of Directors. We were talking about plans for a trip to visit his congregation, but at the end of the call he brought up another subject: that congregation had recently finished a capital campaign, it had some money left over, and was going to send a significant amount to my organization.

And I’ve been thinking about that ever since. Here’s why.

On the one hand, I didn’t do anything to get that gift. I didn’t solicit it. I didn’t even know that the congregation was doing a capital campaign, let alone that it had exceeded its goal. It isn’t a gift that I would brag about bringing it.

On the other hand, I — and people who came before me — did everything to get that gift. Through years of visits, volunteer opportunities, newsletters, appeals, and other relationship-building, I created the climate that led that congregation to think about my organization when it had extra money. It was good cultivation and stewardship that led to that gift. And I was critical to making sure that happened.

It can be hard to remember that this is how development works. This is what makes development different from fundraising.

Fundraising is transactional. If I were a mere fundraiser, I would have had to ask for that gift. I would have to ask for every gift. I would be constantly chasing those next few dollars. I would be starting over new with every donor every time.

But I am not a fundraiser. I am a development professional. And development is the slow, steady nurturing of relationships to the point that donors are ready to give on their own. And while I still have to ask and remind, I’m never chasing dollars; I’m helping donors do what they already want to do.

And, sometimes, that means I get a nice surprise: all the work I’ve been doing pays off without even asking.

Why You Shouldn’t Worry So Much about #GivingTuesday

Every year in mid to late October, I see posts and questions about #givingtuesday appear in my feeds. A lot of people want to give you — or sell you — advice on how your organization can have a record breaking #givingtuesday. And a lot of organizations, development professionals, and executive directors are wondering how they can make this the best #givingtuesday every for their organization.

And they all use the hashtag.

Giving Tuesday can be a great opportunity for you and your organization. And it’s not difficult to make it work:

Spend the weeks leading up to Giving Tuesday priming your donors. This means communicating with them about the work your organization does, why they should care, and what impact their gifts can have. You should do this through every channel you have, and it’s even more effective when it’s peer-to-peer. Encourage supporters to share the reasons they give to your organization on their social media channels.

Find ways to increase the impact on and around Giving Tuesday. This is a great opportunity for a matching gift campaign. If you have a donor that will do a dollar-for-dollar match for every gift on Giving Tuesday, that will be even more motivation for people to give!

Create lots of opportunities to give. The time around Giving Tuesday is a good time to remind people about Amazon Smile, to host an event, or to find other avenues for giving (besides the website and direct mail appeal). Make sure that people can give no matter what they’re doing.

Don’t forget to ask! Make sure that your Giving Tuesday schedule includes asking for gifts, preferably several times. Let people know how the day is going and encourage folks to put you over the top.

Most of all… don’t worry too much about #GivingTuesday.

Giving Tuesday is a big deal to fundraisers and nonprofit organizations. That’s why we all start getting antsy about it in October. But for most people, Giving Tuesday could come and go without a mention and they wouldn’t even notice. As much as we might want to think that this is a big celebration on par with Black Friday, it just doesn’t live in the people’s imaginations in the same way. And that alright… the first Giving Tuesday was just a few years ago, in 2012.

And here’s the thing: good fundraising works every day. It works on Giving Tuesday, it works on local giving days, it works on Christmas, and it works on June 4. If you’re a fundraiser, you should always be priming people to give, finding ways to increase the impact, giving people the opportunity to give, and asking for (and stewarding) those gifts. Fundraising, even on Giving Tuesday, isn’t about clever gimmicks. It’s about working a plan every single day.

So yes, do something for #givingtuesday. It’s a good opportunity and you shouldn’t waste it. But don’t worry so much about it. Don’t stress about it. Don’t panic about it. Do the work on Black Friday and Cyber Monday and normal Wednesday, too. That’s how you raise money.

The United Church of Christ Needs to Invest in Stewardship

Last week, I attended the United Church of Christ’s General Synod. General Synod is our biannual business meeting, full of resolutions to be examined and officers to be elected. There are also exhibits, workshops, reunions, and lots (and lots) of events. Even the extroverts are exhausted after a few days!

One of our tasks at Synod was to debate a resolution about covenantal giving and adopting fundraising best practices (I wrote a little bit about it a few weeks ago). Here’s the key paragraph:

Be it further resolved that the Thirty First General Synod of the United Church of Christ encourages all ministry settings of the United Church of Christ to establish coordinated and comprehensive development programs using best practices that: are sensitive to the needs of all settings of the church; are responsive to changing patterns and practices of generosity across the church and within the culture in which the church lives; are consistent with norms, expectations, and policies of a donor-centered approach to fundraising and philanthropy; and empower congregations and individual donors to donate directly to the mission priorities that are most compelling to them.

This is a great resolution, and I’m glad that it passed. But, as with all resolutions, it means that there’s serious work to do.

As I wandered the exhibit hall and pored over the list of workshops, I noticed that there was a severe lack of compelling materials to help congregations and other expressions of the United Church of Christ to establish those coordinated and comprehensive development programs. Most congregations, associations, and conferences do not have fundraising professionals on staff. Most probably don’t even have fundraising professionals in their pews. In the absence of professionals, this work is going to be left to pastors and volunteers.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. But those pastors and volunteers need to be well-resourced by the denomination. They need a way to understand fundraising from a practical, theological, and pastoral perspective that is honest to the history and values of the United Church of Christ. There is a desperate need for the denomination to invest in resources for clergy and laity in all expressions of the United Church of Christ. In my opinion, this means books, manuals, workshops, webinars, and specialized ministers.

When so many congregations are struggling financially, we cannot afford to have this resolution simply be a suggestion for congregations, conferences, and other bodies. We must invest in the work of ensuring that our denomination and its expressions have the financial resources that they need.

Yes, It’s Time to Change the Pattern of Giving

Excuse me while I get a little provincial.

My denomination, the United Church of Christ, adopted a fundraising policy known as the Pattern of Giving in 1968 (and revised it in 1984). The policy says, basically, that individual donors give to their local congregations. Local congregations then give to their conferences and associations (our middle judicatories). And the conferences and associations then give to our national setting. Dollars move nicely and evenly from the donor, through the local congregation, and on to other expressions and ministries of the United Church of Christ.

It’s a system that was never going to work over the long term. I find it a little hard to believe that it really worked in 1968 or 1984. As the New Ecology of Giving report points out, the Pattern of Giving was good at managing the flow of existing gifts; it was not (and is) not good at attracting new donors or developing relationships with existing donors.

There are three big problems with the Pattern of Giving.

First, local congregations are struggling financially. That means that there is less money available to pass on to conferences and associations and, eventually, to the national setting. As congregations continue to struggle, there is less and less money being passed on every year.

Second, many local congregations don’t really know what the conferences, associations, and national setting actually do. They don’t feel any significant connection to the denomination and its expressions, and so they don’t feel any real impulse to give. Congregations that are struggling financially simply aren’t going to support ministries that they don’t feel a connection to.

Third, I don’t know that many expressions of the United Church of Christ are really following the Pattern of Giving anyway. Certainly, church related institutions like health and human services ministries, camps, and seminaries have had to develop far more robust fundraising strategies than hoping that conferences give to them.

The Pattern of Giving needs to be replaced with strategies and practices that will help expressions of the United Church of Christ – from the smallest local church to the national setting – raise the money they need to realize their missions in the world. Two resolutions about the Pattern of Giving will come before the General Synod this year. I’m confident that these will be combined into a single resolution. I do not know whether that resolution will ask the denomination to lay aside the Pattern of Giving or to explore new options over the next few years. Either way, it is time for the Pattern of Giving to change. It is time for the United Church of Christ to adopt better and more faithful practices for fundraising.

Something Went Wrong with Donor Centered Fundraising

When I was just getting started in fundraising, I found a battered copy of Penelope Burk’s Donor-Centered Fundraising in a desk drawer. I devoured it. It had statistics, it was based on a solid foundation of research, and it gave advice that was easy to implement. I still have a copy on the shelf in my office. I still buy copies for colleagues. I still recommend it to everyone.

I still stand by the core ideas of donor-centered fundraising. And, really, I think that comes down to three simple things:

Donors should receive prompt and meaningful thanks for their gifts. My standard is an official written acknowledgement, including a story of someone who we have helped, personally signed by someone in leadership, and sent within two business days of receiving the gift. For first time donors, I also like to add a phone call or a handwritten thank you card. And, of course, major donors sometimes get special treatment.

Donors should have choices about what their gifts are used for, and the right to support what they care about. I usually create specific, program-based funds that donors can give to. This allows me to provide the option to restrict a gift to the donor while making sure that we (the organization) control what those options are.

Donors should receive information about what their last gift accomplished before they are asked for another gift. While some of this is included in the thank you letter, this is really where newsletters, blog posts, and social media posts shine. I always want to be telling my organization’s story, and part of that story is what our donors have helped do.

But I could put all of this in simpler terms: donors are people with whom we are in relationship. They have their own desires and they give to fulfill those desires. My job as a fundraising professional is to help them realize those desires. I hope they can do that by giving to my organization. But, if they can’t, there are no hard feelings when they go somewhere else.

But something has clearly gone wrong. In the last year or so, I’ve come across two blog posts, from people I respect, who think donor-centrism is a problem. One is from Jason McNeal (and is more than a year old, but I came across it recently). The other is from Vu Le.

I’m not going to go through these criticisms of donor-centrism point by point. There are parts I agree with and parts I don’t. You should go and read them for sure.

But I also think there’s a core problem that both of these posts get to. At some point, donor-centrism stopped being a fundraising principle. People started pushing it as an organizational principle, giving the impression that organizations (not just fundraisers) should revolve around donors. People started telling donors that they were superheroes. People started putting #donorlove above all else.

And that really is a problem.

Now, I understand why it happened. It happened because organizations needed to be reminded that donors are people. I remember having to tell my boss that even if it was easier for accounting if we didn’t start entering this year’s gifts until we completely closed out last year, we couldn’t have a three week lag between receiving a gift and sending a thank you note… for the third year in a row. I remember foolishly backing down when, in response to a throwaway line in an appeal, that same supervisor said that it was emphatically not okay that a donor hadn’t given to us the previous year. I remember sitting in countless conversations where people who were so passionate about our mission that they gave tens of thousands of dollars – and people who were so passionate that they gave the last ten dollar they had – were treated like ATMs. It is easy for people who aren’t interacting with donors every day – who don’t have donors at the center of their job – to forget that donors are people.

It also happened because donor-centrism works. People are more generous when we help them see that they’re meeting their own need to do good through their gift than they are when we tell them to do what we want to do. Donors are not extensions of our desires. And they are more open to giving when we treat them as something greater than that.

But still, it’s a problem. When an organization as a whole starts serving donors before anyone else, it really does perpetuate competition, fuel systemic injustice, and proliferate savior complexes.

In any healthy organization – in any healthy community – everyone has a role to play. In a healthy nonprofit, the board and the executive director need to look after the health of the organization, the program staff need to advocate for the people they’re serving, and fundraisers need to make sure that donors are being cared for. When we each play our part, all of the voices are at the table. We can ask and answer important questions like,

Does this fit the mission of our organization?

Does this serve the people who we are called to serve in the best possible way?

Does this give our donors and other supporters a way to help solve a problem?

And it’s when all of us play a part that we can transform the world into a place of greater justice and mercy.

For fundraisers – and only for fundraisers – that part is centered on donors. And we should never try to make other people take on that challenge.

Update: Vu Le has a follow up to his original post.

Three Thoughts on Technology (Especially in Fundraising)

Technology is a tool.

I have worked for too many places that serve their technology rather than the other way around. Real world practices end up being determined by what their technology – and especially their databases – will allow them do to. And this has meant some bizarre practices. How weird is that? I mean, would anyone accept a hammer that required you to be standing on one leg and facing away from the nail in order to use it? No. And yet we too quickly become willing to allow our technology to determine how we do things… even if that means we do things in ways that make no sense.

Or we end up not doing things at all. Database doesn’t handle moves management? It doesn’t get done. Can handle event management? We end up not tracking expenses… and thinking our events perform far better than they do. Why is that acceptable?

Obviously, there’s a relationship between our practices and our tools. Hammers leave callouses. Heavier tools can strain our muscles and shape our backs. So, yeah, to a degree our technology is going to influence our practices – and the shape of our resource development strategies. But rather than blithely accepting this, we should acknowledge and respond to how our technology influences us.

Tools are there to make life easier.

Following on the first point, look at your technology and ask this question: is this making things easier? I’ve seen organizations that have entire staff positions dedicated to being able to do things the way their technology wants it done – because it’s so complicated it takes an entire position to work it and work around it. Why is that okay?

It’s not!

If a tool isn’t making life easier – or, worse, is making life harder – get rid of it.

The single biggest problem I see with organizations and their technology is inertia. We get used to doing things the way our technology demands they be done. We get used to culling through mailing lists by hand because our database can’t handle households. We get used to the shape our offices take as they form, like a pearl, around the grain of sand that is bad technology And eventually… we can’t imagine doing things any other way!

Let your real world practices and strategies determine what your technology needs to do – that is: what it needs to help your with.

If it’s doing those things, good, you’ve made excellent technology choices.

If it isn’t, get rid of it and find another solution.

Some Thoughts on MultiState Nonprofit Registration

If you’re part of a small nonprofit organization that solicits gifts in multiple states, you’re probably a little familiar with multistate nonprofit registration. This is the requirement that nonprofit organizations that are based in one state and ask for gifts in another state have to register with the second state.

So, for example, an organization based in Davenport, Iowa, that sends a direct mail appeal across the Mississippi River to its neighbor, Rock Island, Illinois, must also register as a soliciting organization in Illinois.

Now, just so we have some clarity on this and don’t cause anyone to panic, a few notes. First, churches are often exempt from registration. So a congregation in Davenport that sends a pledge form to a member in Rock Island probably does not need to register. Second, an organization doesn’t need to register in order to receive gifts. If someone from Rock Island sends a gift to the nonprofit in Davenport, that doesn’t mean the organization in Davenport needs to register. The organization only needs to register if it solicits gifts in another state. Third, there’s no firm ruling on how this affects online solicitations like emails, social media, or a nice shiny donate button on a website.

Multistate registration is required by something like 38 states plus the District of Columbia. For organizations that solicit in just a couple of states, that might be no big deal. For organizations that solicit in a lot of states – organizations that have a national donor base – it is a tremendous challenge. Even though there is a movement for a unified registration form, some states haven’t agreed to it, and the states that have agreed to it often require additional forms that are state-specific. In addition to the forms, of course, there are supplemental materials that need to be collected and fees that need to be paid.

For a large organization, this might be feasible (though I won’t claim that it would be easy). A sizable accounting department, with help from the development office, might be able to take care of these registrations in the normal course of business. For small or mid-size organizations, however, this is a serious challenge.

To give an example, I know of an organization with a national donor base that could not handle the work of all of these registrations in house. There simple wasn’t the staff with the necessary expertise (not to mention time). They hired a very reputable company that handles this work for them. The total cost – the service fee to the company, the registration fees to states, and other fees – was about $10,000.

That represents less than one percent of that organization’s budget (it’s about the same amount they actually spend on direct mail appeals each year). It also represents children not fed, families not housed, people not clothed, case management not provided, homes not repaired, and dozens of other tasks not completed. For a smaller organization, with a national donor base, this would be debilitating.

I’m sure that the logic behind multistate registration is to protect unwary residents from being scammed by fake ‘charities’. I’m also suspect that some states see this as an opportunity to bring in a little revenue. But I am also absolutely sure that there is a better way to do this. For example, what if every organization that is registered with the IRS was exempt from these requirements? The IRS could share its list of legitimate organizations with the states. That would protect the unwary and remove a burden on nonprofits that would much rather use those registration fees to help people.

So, perhaps rather than a movement for a unified form that would be used as part of the package sent to some of the states, we need a real push for national — and only national — nonprofit registration.

It Does All Belong to God. That Doesn’t Mean It All Belongs to the Church. It Sure Doesn’t Mean It All Belongs to Your Church.

My wife is a pastor of a local congregation of the United Church of Christ. That means that she sometimes receives mail from fundraising consultants looking for clients. Recently, she got a mailing that included these two paragraphs (emphasis original):

Why aren’t their people giving as they could or should? It’s not the economy which goes up and down like a thermometer. It’s not unemployment, though many people have simply quit looking for work. And it’s not that they don’t love the Lord or want to see their church grow and abound.

The reason people are not giving as they could or should is that they have never been trained to give. They have never come face to face with the fact that God owns it all. They have never realized that all of us own exactly the same amount – zero – and that we are managers and stewards of what God has entrusted to us.

Sigh. This is an attitude I see a lot in fundraising for religious organizations. It is frighteningly common belief that being a good steward of God’s gifts means using those gifts to support one particular organization: my organization. In the church, it looks like the paragraphs I quoted: people who are good stewards of God’s gifts will give those gifts to my church.

And that’s just not true.

Being a good steward of God’s gifts means doing with those gifts what God calls us to do with those gifts. And while many people are called to give to the institutional church or to a particular congregation, many people are called to give to other organizations as well (or instead). I believe that God really does want us to support education and the arts; God really does want us to help refugees and support human rights; God really does want us to save the rainforests and keep rhinoceroses from going extinct.

God has a lot of work for us to do. Sometimes that’s going to mean giving our gifts to organizations other than our congregations. Sometimes, that’s even going to mean not giving our gifts to our congregations.

Because sometimes, our congregations are terrible stewards of those gifts. Sometimes, our congregations aren’t doing the work that we’re called to give to. Sometimes, our congregations are more focused on maintaining an institution than being a force for good in the world.

And most of the time, when people aren’t giving, it isn’t because people don’t understand the importance of giving.

It’s because people haven’t been given a reason to give.

So this letter had some things right. When people aren’t giving to a congregation, it isn’t because of the economy, it isn’t because of unemployment, it isn’t because they don’t love the Lord. But it also isn’t that they’ve never learned to give.

But it may be because that congregation hasn’t made a strong case that it is a worthy recipient of those gifts. And making that case is what congregations should focus on.

Development Is a Program

Recently, on a forum I frequent, I came across this question:

Fundraising seems like a full time job. How do you do it when you’re the only employee of your nonprofit, and you have to do it all, from programming, accounting, marketing, events, and fundraising?

I responded on that forum, but I wanted to take a minute to flesh out my response here.

One of the mistakes that a lot of nonprofits make is thinking that development is something that they do in addition to their programs. Often, those nonprofits believe that development is something they do in order to support their real work: it’s how they raise the money to feed the hungry, house the homeless, care for abandoned animals, and so on.

I believe that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of nonprofits and the role of development. I believe that development is part of the mission of every nonprofit.

In a sense, every nonprofit has two sets of clients. One is the group of people we usually think of as clients. The other is the donors who support the organization. You see, one of the purposes of a nonprofit organization is to be a conduit for the power of its donors to change the world; every nonprofit is an organization that donors give through, not just to. People who want to feed the hungry do that by giving through nonprofits that feed the hungry. People who want to house the homeless do that by giving through nonprofits that house the homeless. And so on. Those donors might do other things as well, but one of the ways they take action is through their giving.

Once a nonprofit sees this, it can begin understanding its donors not as potential sources of funding, but as people who it is serving.

Realizing that doesn’t make fundraising any less work. It doesn’t diminish the size of ‘doing it all’. But it does change the nature of that work. Once the only employee, and the Board, and volunteers, understand that fundraising and stewardship are part of the mission, they can integrate that work into the work of the organization. And that can make an unbelievable difference.

Two Challenges When Raising Money from Churches

My official title is ‘church relations associate’, so you might think that I spend a lot of my time relating to congregations. And, since my job is to raise money, you might think I spend a lot of time raising money from congregations.

I don’t.

I spend far more of my time relating to – and raising money from – individuals. Yes, I visit congregations. I preach. I attend events. I ask them to send groups to volunteer. I ask them for money. But I spend more of my time on direct mail, social media, email, our website, phone calls, and personal visits with individuals.

Here’s why: raising money from congregations is hard. The amount of effort it takes to raise $1,000 from a congregation is generally exponentially larger than the amount of effort it takes to raise the same amount of money from an individual or family. This is true for two major reasons. First, many congregations are themselves under a great deal of financial pressure. Second, decision making authority in congregations tends to be dispersed.

Financial Pressure in Congregations

Let’s be honest, a lot of congregations – especially, but not only, mainline congregations – are facing immense financial pressures. We live in an era of rising employment costs, aging memberships, shrinking congregations, and a million other realities that mean that congregations have less money to spend on more things.

This fact is easily illustrated by looking at employment in churches. As I write this, there are eight congregations in the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ (my own denomination) actively searching for a pastor. Seven of those positions are part time, and one of them is part time and temporary. Five of the congregations have a membership of under 100 people (two more have a membership of 100 people). Five of them also have total budgets under $100,000 per year.

I’m not going to claim that those congregations are representative of mainline congregations, but I suspect that more mainline congregations look like these congregations than don’t.

And how many of them are in any position to make a financial contribution to another organization?

The simple fact is that more congregations are facing these kinds of financial pressures. And when they face these pressures, one of the first things they try to do is cut their budgets. And when they try to cut their budgets, one of the first places they look is their mission spending, whether that’s to their denomination or to outside organizations.

Decision Making in Congregations

It’s easy to imagine that the best route to a gift from a congregation is through the pastor. After all, the pastors have real authority within churches and can be powerful advocates for missions that they believe in. Even if the congregation is thinking about cutting their total mission spending, surely the pastor can make sure that a particular line of mission spending is kept… or even increased!

And that’s true… up to a point.

The fact is that in most congregations, the pastor has some – but nowhere close to all – of the decision making power. When it comes to mission spending, the pastor is a lone voice. Decision making authority rests with the stewardship committee (which raises the money), the finance committee (which designs the budget), the mission committee (which makes specific recommendations about mission spending), and the congregation (which must approve all of these decisions in some way). The ability to make decisions is dispersed across committees and individuals throughout the congregation.

And who those individuals are – whether they act alone or as part of a committee – can change from year to year or even month to month.

That means that you, as a fundraiser, never know quite who to approach about that gift. And given the variety of budget making processes in congregations, you may never quite know when.

Conclusion

That leaves fundraisers seeking money from churches in a tight position. We’re talking about raising money from an organization that probably doesn’t have money to spare. And we’re talking about doing that without a clear picture of who to speak to or when to speak to them. That is not an idea position to be in when asking for money.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ask congregations for money, of course. It just means that you need to recognize the limits of doing that. You are far better off focusing on individuals. And, if you want to raise money from congregations, equipping those individuals to be advocates within their own congregations.