Church Stewardship is Weird

Not too long ago, I finished writing my first book. Since that manuscript is now in the editing process, some thoughts that I already had about a second book are coming back to the front of my mind. The idea that I’m toying with for that book stems from this idea: church stewardship is weird.

I’ve sat through a lot of church stewardship campaigns. I’ve helped run some of them. And, in general, they have a pretty simple argument. First, they point out that God has entrusted wealth to (some) members of the church. Second, they tell those people that they should be responsible with the wealth that God has given to them. Within the church, and within Christian theology, neither of these points are controversial. These ideas have a long history and a strong position in Christian thought.

Church stewardship campaigns add another step to this argument: they argue that one important way that church members can be responsible with the gifts that God has given to them is to give a portion of those gifts to the church. 

Now, that’s not a bad point to add. And I know that there are churches who do a good job. But, in my experience, where a lot of churches fail is that they don’t make a case for why giving to the church—and, really, to a specific congregation—is a responsible use of the wealth that God has entrusted to the care of church members. Church stewardship campaigns are too often nothing more than statements that good Christians give to their churches.

These churches are teaching a very simple principle: churches are entitled to benefit from the good stewardship of their members.

And every year, churches across the United States see fewer pledge cards turned in, less money pledged, and tighter budgets.

Here’s what’s weird about church stewardship. In the church, ‘stewardship’ is really just another word for fundraising. And it’s usually a word for fundraising-that’s-not-very-effective. In the rest of the nonprofit sector, stewardship is part of a larger fundraising process. It’s the part of that process where the organization proves itself to a donor. It tells the donor that the gift was received, that the organization was glad to receive it, that it’s being put to work as the donor intended, and that it’s having the effect that the donor wanted it to. Thank you notes, annual reports, photos and videos of the people who the organization helps, statistical reports, and all of those things that say, “Hey, thank you for giving to us, here’s how we’re going the things you wanted us to do,” are examples of good stewardship.

And here’s why that matters. The most basic principle of fundraising is that people give because someone who they trust asks them to. A donor might make that first gift because a friend asks them to. For example, someone might say, “For my birthday, I’d like you to give to this thing.” But now the ball is in the organization’s court. The second gift will only come if the organization can show the donor that their first gift—no matter the reason that they gave it—was a good investment; it did the thing that the donor wanted it to do.

And the way that we show the donor that their gift did the thing that they wanted it to do is stewardship. An organization might just show you how happy a donor made their friend, or tell them about the puppies they saved, or show them the person who moved from the street into an apartment. The organization looks at what the donor wanted to accomplish and demonstrates that their gift accomplished that thing. And when that organization does a good job of that, it gets more gifts and bigger gifts.

Stewardship in the wider world is more-or-less the opposite of stewardship in a lot of churches. As I wrote above, in churches, stewardship campaigns teach the principles that churches are entitled to benefit from the good stewardship of their members. In other organizations—and especially in organizations that are successful fundraisers—stewardship is based on the principle that donors are entitled to benefit from the good stewardship of the organizations. Even if that benefit is just the warm fuzzies.

Church stewardship is weird because it’s backwards. And turning it around can make all the difference for a church that’s struggling to raise money. Instead of asking members to show the church that they are good stewards, we need to show members that we are good stewards. And once people know that we’re a good place to put their money, they’ll be happy to give.

Events are a Mind-Killer

When organizations need money — whether they are small congregations or large universities — a lot of the people who serve those organizations start thinking about events. I’ve worked with organizations that host golf outings, put together trivia nights, host parties and galas, and do dozens of other things. And I’ve worked with organizations that have suggested other ideas, ranging from putting on a play to hosting a euchre tournament to letting people pay to destroy office equipment. And I understand why that is: we intuitively understand fundraising events and we see other organizations hosting them.

But here’s the thing: events are mind-killers. More often than not, they waste time and energy and money. And that waste means that they keep us from focusing on the day-to-day work of relationship building that reliably generates revenue.

So here are some basic truths about fundraising events:

Events are the least efficient way to raise money. It is a truth universally acknowledged by fundraisers that it costs about $0.50 to raise $1 from an event. Compare that to the cost to raise a dollar from renewing a direct mail donor ($0.20) or from closing on a major gift ($0.10). There’s no competition! If you’re planning an event as a fundraiser, there is almost certainly a better way you could be spending your time.

New events tend to lose money. It can take years for a fundraising event to become revenue-positive. Many new events cost more than they raise. If you’re lucky, an established event will eventually break even and then start to raise small amounts of money. That means that any event is an investment, and that you need to stick with it for years to start raising money from it. And given that it may never become revenue-positive, that’s a pretty risky proposition.

Even if an event makes money, there is probably a more efficient way to do it. Most of the people who attend an organization’s fundraising event are… people who already support the organization. Seriously. I’ve been to events where the only attendees are staff, board members, and closely-related donors. And that means that the organization could have saved on the cost of food, staff time, and so on by simply asking those people for money.

None of that means that events are completely useless. Well done events can be good ways to attract media attention, introduce new people to an organization, kick-off matching gift campaigns, and so on. The key phrase being ‘well done’. Effective events are an investment, very few organizations are really prepared to put on a good one, and even effective ones are almost never particularly good as fundraisers.

But here’s the most important thing. The idea of the amazing fundraising event that raises all — or most, or a significant amount — of the money that an organization needs captures the imagination of too many organizations. And by capturing that attention, it leads those organizations to focus on finding the right magical event… and it distracts them from doing the real work of fundraising.

Events are a mind-killer. The idea of events — the hope that organizations place in events — is a mind-killer.

So here’s a rule for organizations: you get one event. That’s your signature event. Any time someone comes along and suggests a marathon or golf outing or basketball tournament or gala, you get to say, “Sorry, we already have our signature event, and it’s the only event we’re doing this year.”

You get to spend some time every week working on that event. You get to spend some time helping it raise money and awareness. You get to spend some time figuring out how to get potential new donors to come and learn about the amazing things you do. You get to spend some time thinking about how you’ll follow up with all of those attendees and turn as many of them as you can into regular donors.

Yyou get to spend the rest of your time — all of that wonderful time that you’re not using to come up with yet another event idea — on the real work of fundraising. You get to spend it developing a direct mail program and an online program, visiting with potential major and planned giving donors, and reporting back to all of your donors on the work their gifts are doing in the world.

Then, you get to raise the money that you need in order to change the world.

About This Blog: Fundraising and Communications

In an earlier post, I wrote about refocusing this blog on three topics: charity, fundraising and communications, and being a pastor. In this post, I’m taking a little time to talk about one of these foci: fundraising and communications.

I’ve been a nonprofit development professional for more than a decade. I’ve worked for institutions of higher education and for social service agencies. I’ve volunteered and consulted for churches. I’ve done everything from annual fundraising campaigns to capital campaigns to designing websites and newsletters. For over ten years, I’ve lived and breathed development work.

I’ve also been part of the church — and, specifically, part of the United Church of Christ — for my entire life. And, to be blunt, we aren’t very good at this work. Churches from every part of the political and theological spectrum are struggling with their fundraising and communications. Stewardship campaigns are ineffective, websites are outdated, and very few congregations are innovating when it comes to engaging their constituencies. These problems aren’t the only cause of shrinking churches and budget struggles, but they’re certain one of those causes.

Part of what this blog is about is sharing best practices — practices that have been honed in the bigger nonprofit sector — with the mainline church. We can be responsibly and faithful stewards of the gifts that have been shared with us. And we can use those gifts to share the good news with more people.

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.

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