There Is More to Fundraising Than Meets the Eye

It’s no secret that a lot of churches and small nonprofit organizations struggle with fundraising. I know a lot of these organizations whose members-who-are-responsible-for-fundraising feel like they are working harder every year to raise the same amount of money that they did the previous year. And I know more than a few who feel like they’re working harder every year—or every quarter, or every month, or every week—to raise less.

A lot of fundraising in churches and small nonprofit organizations is just plain bad fundraising. It’s common fundraising knowledge that things like major gift visits and direct mail appeals not only work, but are highly efficient. It’s also common fundraising knowledge—at least among fundraising professionals—that events are incredibly inefficient. Many of them lose money for their organizations.

Now, I know that there are churches and organizations that have cultures that support fundraising strategies that wouldn’t work elsewhere. My own church raises money for things through fundraising brunches: some members of the church donate egg bakes and other breakfast items, then other members make a freewill offering for a plate after worship. It isn’t a method that I would recommend anywhere else, but people are used to it, it’s part of the culture, and it works for us.

Still, a lot of churches and small nonprofit organizations rely on methods that don’t raise money. I know one small organization whose entire fundraising strategy seems to rely on fundraising events that include a fundraising breakfast, trivia nights, and restaurant profit-sharing nights. And I know plenty of churches that seem to rely primarily on short-term annual stewardship campaigns and desperate pleas from the pulpit.

One of the things that I’ve been thinking about as I start working on my next big extracurricular project is why that is. Why do so many churches and small nonprofit organizations rely on fundraising methods that professional fundraisers know are likely to be relatively ineffective? And why do so many shun methods that would help them raise more money?

And I think part of it really comes down to knowledge.

Most of the people who are fundraising for these organizations are volunteers, and very few of those volunteers are professional fundraisers. Most of those volunteers have to go with their intuitions about what works, and that means relying on the fundraising strategies that they’ve seen and that they remember. And they’ve seen and remember fundraising galas and social media appeals; they’ve also seen, and some might remember, appeal letters and thank you notes; and some might have seen, and might remember, newsletters and annual reports, but not connect those to fundraising.

Most volunteers have never been part of a major gifts program or planned giving campaign. And most have never seen the hours of work that go into crafting a letter or social media campaign. Most have probably never really seen a highly successful event and the work that goes into throwing one.

To put that another way: these organizations are asking their volunteer fundraisers to figure things out on their own, and those volunteers are rightly going with the things that they know (or think that they know). And the same goes for pastors, executive directors, and other professionals who have no fundraising training: they’re doing the best they can do without the specialized knowledge that fundraising professionals have.

And the question for fundraising professionals—and for those of us who used to be fundraising professionals—and who want to see congregations and small nonprofit organizations succeed, is: how do we help these organizations get the knowledge they need to raise the money they need to accomplish their valuable and important missions?

Right now, there is a movement in churches and nonprofits arguing that charity is toxic, that helping hurts, and that the entire nonprofit sector needs to be reformed to truly lift people out of poverty. These charity skeptics are telling Christians that traditional charity deepens dependency, fosters a sense of entitlement, and erodes the work ethic of people who receive it. Charity skepticism is increasingly popular; and it is almost certainly wrong.

Now available from Wipf and Stock’s Cascade Books imprint, Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church) weaves together research and scholarship on topics as diverse as biblical scholarship, Christian history, economics, and behavioral psychology to tell a different story. In this story, charity is the heart of Christianity and one of the most effective ways that we can help people who are living in poverty. Charity—giving to people experiencing poverty without any expectation of return or reformation—can save the world and help make God’s vision for the church a reality.

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