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 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.
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.
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.
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.