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Stewardship and Fundraising: Nine myths that hurt your parish

Stewardship and Fundraising: Nine myths that hurt your parish

by Eric Bonetti

Stewardship covers a wide range of issues, from mindful use of natural resources, to caring for our churches and other physical assets, to ensuring that we have in place adequate internal controls to prevent theft or malfeasance. But one aspect of stewardship almost inevitably brings sighs, groans, and worried looks, and that is fundraising.

Even the word “fundraising” is often avoided in our parishes and related organizations. Too often, asking for money makes us feel like moneychangers in the temple. As a result, we hid behind phrases like “pledge campaign” or other euphemisms, as if we were talking about something dark, dirty, or mysterious.

But the reality is that our parishes need money to operate, to pay salaries, to keep the lights on, and to serve our communities. These are all good things, so it follows that the fundraising, which makes all of these possible is also a good — and properly approached — joyous thing.

What causes this disconnect between how we feel and the need to fundraise? Coming from a nonprofit environment, I have seen that all too often the issue relates to the various myths that surround fundraising. With that in mind, here are nine major myths that all too often trip up even the most faithful and diligent parishes and vestries:

Myth 1: Build it and They Will Come (Otherwise Known as God Will Provide)

This one is bad news. Too often, we look at our parishes and see the love and caring and think, “Of course we will have the resources we will need. How could a place this wonderful not get what it needs?”

The reality, of course, is far different. We have only to look at teachers, firefighters, and law enforcement to see that value does not automatically equal revenue. This is even more the case when we are talking about food pantries, homeless shelters, and other needed community services. And things get still worse when you’re talking about something like funding a parish, in which spiritual growth, caring, and compassion often are intangible services that are easy to take for granted.

The reality is that fundraising is an essential part of life for our parishes and dioceses.

Myth 2: Fundraising is all About Asking for Money, and I Hate to Ask

How often have you heard this one? I hear it all the time.

The reality, though, is that “the ask” is the smallest part of fundraising.

Good fundraisers know that it’s all about giving, not getting. And while that sounds counter-intuitive, those who give are those who are engaged. They have their needs met, their questions answered, and they understand the issues. They view church as a positive, caring place, worthy of their time and support long before the discussion ever gets to money. In short, the folks who give you money are most likely to do so if they are onboard long before “the ask.”

Sadly, all too often our parishes confine fundraising to an annual pledge campaign. As a result, vestry members and others wind up calling on folks out of the blue, who not surprisingly treat the calls just like other telemarketing. Most of us are good at getting rid of this sort of unwanted intrusion, and if this feels awkward to you, it should. The personal connection needs to exist long before you ever touch base to talk about stewardship.

Myth Three: The Internet and Social Media Have Changed Everything

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Social media have an important role, no doubt. As we work to tell a story — the story of how our parishes serve parishioners, friends, family and community — which in turn leads to giving, the social media serve as just one of myriad channels through which we tell that story. Indeed, how often do we see clergy or parishes who talk about the importance of outreach, but their last Facebook post was several months ago? Clearly, ignoring the social media or the Internet is a recipe for disaster.

The best fundraisers are out and about in the community. They teach college classes. They speak to countless civic groups and organizations. And they remember that real-life stories and human faces remain the most compelling parts of fundraising. In short, they recognize the value of the human touch.

Another thing that hasn’t changed is the level of labor required. Fundraising is hard work, and automation only takes you so far. Building effective relationships requires persistence and hard work, and that is not likely to change any time soon.

One important caveat: The social media and the Internet have led to one big change, and that is in how information is presented. Pictures are in. Words are fewer. Vibrant colors count. If your materials are more than five years old, take the time to ask a variety of folks in your parish what they think of them. The answer may surprise you.

Myth Four: It’s All About Who You Know

No, no, no and no.

Connection count, for sure. But it is not who you know. It’s who knows you.

What’s the difference?

The difference is that people give because they know and trust the person or people involved. So it’s not a matter of somehow just magically finding the person with the deep pockets, or the person who knows a couple hundred others with deep pockets. It’s about giving people a chance to engage with you and your parish, to learn about you, to like you, and to care about your success. Once that happens, resources will tend to come your way, without even asking.

Myth Five: Times are Tight, so Money Will be Too

Like most myths, there’s a certain component of truth here, but it’s still a myth.

For years now, giving has no longer been normative. Gone are the cozy days of forty or fifty years ago, when folks automatically joined a church, supported it generously, and served in volunteer roles when asked.

Today, donors want transparency. They want to know that their money will be used wisely. They want accountability, and they want to know that their resources will produce tangible results. In short, donors are more educated consumers, and this is never more the case than in an economic downturn.

Ironically enough, many nonprofits have found that the downturn has resulted in increased giving, particularly for organizations that know how to tell their story and provide needed services. For instance, nonprofits that provide homes to those who are homeless due to job loss or foreclosure have, in a number of areas, experienced record levels of giving in the downturn. Donors recognize the need, they trust these organizations to meet the need, and they are willing to put resources behind these organizations.

Myth Six: Pledges are Down, So My Budget Must Go Down

This one will get you every time.

Of course, this sounds like a sensible thing. Less revenue must mean reduced expenses, or bad things will happen in relatively short order. The problem is that, all too often, it means you’ve asked for pledges before you’ve developed a budget.

Think about it. As a parish, you have certain things that are essential. You must provide pastoral care. You must provide opportunities for worship. You must pay your bills.

There also as things that you would like to do, and arguably must do as an ethical matter, such as feeding the sick, caring for the indigent, and working to end injustice.

All of these things cost money, and chances are you can not only predict what these things will cost, but can readily produce a “dream budget.” A dream budget is one that essentially says, “If I had all the money I needed, here’s what my budget would look like, and here’s what I would do with that money.”

In short, why are you asking folks to pledge first, and telling them what will happen with the money second? Why don’t you develop a target, show people how hitting that target will make a difference, and help them get to that target?

Of course, some parishes, especially in areas of changing demographics, may find that such an approach is not possible. A great many cities have downtown parishes that were located in once affluent residential areas that are now nothing but offices. Or they are in rustbelt areas in which carrying costs may simply be too high given the regional economy. But for suburban parishes in affluent areas, you’re making a big mistake if you don’t take the time to dream a little.

Myth Seven: If I Screw It Up, Bad Things Will Happen

Not so much.

Every fundraiser — whether he or she admits it or not — has backed over a landmine or two over the years. But the reality is that, if the relationship is solid and people know you’re trying to do good, most people will give you a pass.

For me, that moment happened a few years ago, when I made an offhand comment to one of my primary funding sources about the importance of another funding source to my organization. Little did I know that the specific issue I mentioned was the source of serious tension between the two donors. But I learned of my mistake quickly when I got back to the office. The phone was ringing as I came through the door, and the decision-maker from my earlier meeting was on the line saying, “We just don’t say that, and here’s why.”

Needless to say, I apologized profusely and was grateful to learn about this issue. I was also very careful never to repeat my error. As for the caller, she treated the situation as a lesson learned and has been gracious about the issue ever since, and there’s never been any fallout from my error.

So, don’t look for trouble. But if despite your best efforts, it finds you anyway, accept responsibility, learn from your mistake, and move on.

Myth Eight: Good Fundraisers are Those Who are Naturals, and That’s Not Me

Okay, so not every painter is going to become Rembrandt. Not every high school quarterback winds up playing in the NFL. And not every fundraiser is going to be world class. That’s the reality.

At the same time, there are many introverts who are highly successful as fundraisers. Sometimes, this means that they have to make more of an effort to be outgoing and to build relationships. But introverts often have a depth of perspective and insight that may be lacking in extroverts, giving them unique skills that can be put to good use.

It’s also true that there are many fundraisers who think that they are good, but who aren’t. For instance, certain hot issues tend to raise money, regardless of the fundraiser’s underlying skill set. These include military issues, hunger, and certain specific diseases.

At the same time, there are many fundraisers who are putting tons of energy into campaigns that may be lucky to break even–so much so that they’d be better off just writing a check. Yes, fundraising is labor-intensive, but if you are working so hard at it that writing a check would be more cost-effective, you have issues, either with your cause or with your fundraising skills.

The bottom line is this: Fundraising is a learned skill that can be improved over time, and while there are some traits, including persistence, that correlate with success, there are few true naturals. You can learn how to raise money, and you can learn how to measure results. The latter is particularly important, for if you don’t know what success looks like, you will be unlikely to know it when you see it.

Myth Nine: Fundraising is Misery, Pure and Simple

If you’ve read this far, you probably already know why this one is a myth. You likely are someone who loves The Episcopal Church, has close ties to it, and you care about its success.

You know that fundraising is about far more than sending out pledge envelopes or cold-calling. (In fact, if you are cold-calling for money, stop. Now. Instead, call that person to learn a little bit about them, and go from there.)

Fundraising success requires that you tell a story, and if you’re like me, it’s a story that you find deeply compelling and easy to tell. It’s about being part of the lives of people that you care about. It’s about engagement, positive change, transparency and communication. It’s about building for the future. Yes, there are times you have to ask for money, but if you’re doing it right, this should feel, both to you and the donor, like a very natural, positive thing. So go out there, enjoy the opportunity to support the growth of your parish and diocese, and have fun. It truly can be a joyous thing.

Eric Bonetti is a nonprofit professional in Northern Virginia with experience in change management and strategic planning. He is an active member of Grace Episcopal Church in Alexandria VA.

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Agree with Carolyn. I like books by Christopher Clif and also the book “Fear of Beggars” which was a big help for my thinking.

Joe Hamby

Thank you for your helpful insights.

Carolyn Chilton

Mr. Bonetti makes some excellent points about fundraising. But fundraising is not the same as stewardship. In his first paragraph, he notes that “stewardship covers a wide range of issues…” but fails to mention the biblical and theological foundations of stewardship. Stewardship in the church is recognizing that all that we have is a gift from God and giving back to God out of thanksgiving for that gift. Stewardship is a way of life, not a program. It is not fundraising. When we give of our time, talent and financial resources we receive back much more than we give. Giving turns around and becomes a blessing. Pledging and giving are an encounter with Jesus. It is a matter of saying, in a pledge, ‘Yes Lord, I will do this.” As each of us gives, we reap the benefits of generosity and faith. We grow closer to God. Stewardship is about a relationship with God. It is not about getting our needs met. It is not about funding programs. It is about a relationship with God and with the church. Out of that relationship, gifts of time, talent and money will come to provide for the needs of the church’s mission.

Carolyn Moomaw Chilton

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