9 Principles for Successful Church Fundraising

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I don’t recall the speaker’s name or her cause, but I still remember the pitch all these years later.

As I sat in the auditorium at Dordt College, she made her call to action: Meet her in the atrium and make checks out to her cause. Her argument was:

You may be thinking, ‘Can I trust this charity? How exactly will the money be used?’ But how carefully do you think it through when you buy something for yourself? How much do you think about spending $15 on a CD? And isn’t giving $15 to our cause more important?

I can’t say how well that approach worked on others sitting in the chapel, but for me, it worked like a train wreck. I got the point, but her approach was an insult to everyone’s intelligence.

Yes, I think carefully before I buy things for myself, even for $15. So why don’t you convince me that your organization is trustworthy, show me some data, and explain how that $15 is going to be spent?

principles for successful church fundraising

Everyone handles money differently. People have different interests, different priorities, and different visions, as anyone who has taken part in church planning knows. There’s a lot for your church to weigh and consider as you try to secure the donations you need to survive and thrive.

So how can you put together a successful church fundraising formula that works? Maybe the best place to start is to look at reasons why people stop giving to churches and other charities.

Why do donors stop giving?

Adrian Sargeant, director of the Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy at the University of Plymouth, lays out some reasons:

bar graph: the top 7 reasons why donors leave charitable organizations

The top 7 reasons why donors stop giving to charitable organizations

We can flip that list over to get an idea of what a successful charity looks like.

To gain and keep donors, a nonprofit should:

  • Support causes that are important to donors
  • Demonstrate to donors how it is addressing the need
  • Thank donors for their support
  • Acknowledge its need for donors’ support
  • Communicate well with donors
  • Honor donors’ intentions

Principles for successful church fundraising

When looking at research and collective wisdom from the church sphere and the broader nonprofit world, three themes emerge:

  • Motivation
  • The giving experience
  • Trust
Within those three themes, I’ve identified nine key directives for successful church fundraising.

Motivation

bar graph: the top 7 reasons why donors leave charitable organizations

via Joshua Earle on Unsplash

To get someone to open up their wallets and give you money, you have to give them a compelling reason and not just guilt them into it. The key to long-term, mutually satisfying church-donor relationships is a motivated donor.

So how do you convince donors that your project is worth giving to?

1. Build a clear, shared goal

Church leaders who simply make up their own minds about spending priorities and seek buy-in from the congregation after the fact will have an uphill climb.

A church organization, its congregation, and donors need to share the same priorities. It takes work and communication to cultivate a common vision, but it’s an essential first step to raising money.

Working together from the start is a great way to respect and value the donor. Think about it—would you be more likely to donate to your church’s fundraiser if you had some part in prioritizing and organizing it?

Get together and start sorting out the church’s vision and how the church will collect and spend money. One way to do this is by surveying your congregation.

In “The Dynamics of Church Finance,” James D. Berkley explains other ways to get a congregation’s collaborative circuitry firing:

  1. Create a church fundraising policy statement. This statement lays out how the church introduces and approves fundraising projects, what activities meet the church’s identity and purpose, and what doesn’t.
  2. Create a list of priorities. Start a committee or congregational meeting with a blank sheet of paper and a simple question: If the church could only fund ten things, what would they be? It’s easier to do this if your church finances are already in order.

Remember, it’s always better to get everyone’s thoughts out in the open and nail down priorities before starting a project than to wait for all those feelings and conflicts to bubble up to the surface later.

2. Don’t just talk about the need, show it

“Show, don’t tell.”

Vivid imagery lights up parts of the brain that mere facts just don’t, and the same goes for vivid storytelling. A picture, a story, personal details—these give our imaginations, our memories, and our internal motivational instincts something to latch onto.

Patrick Moreau cites controlled studies that show that subjects who heard specifics about an individual’s life could be more than twice as generous as subjects who were given statistics.

In fact, study subjects were actually more generous in response to individual details than they were to details plus statistics. I’m not recommending ditching stats and figures, but that’s an interesting data point.

Don’t just tell donors why you need their money. Show them how their money can change lives for the better through stories and pictures.

3. Focus on your donor’s role

When you show the need for fundraising with real stories, remember to focus on respecting and valuing your donors.

John Haydon writes that a crucial element of the story is to show the donor how he or she can play a meaningful role in improving the person’s life or moving the project forward.

He writes, “Human beings are hardwired to seek resolution in any story, and in fundraising stories, it’s the call-to-action.”

He writes further about how to focus on the donor with that call to action:

The word ‘donate’ just doesn’t have the same oomph as ‘give clean water’ or ‘feed hungry children’. For one thing, ‘donate’ doesn’t place the donor in the role of the hero as well as specific verb-impact phrases.

Once the project is in progress, keep telling the story and show donors that their contributions are important.

The giving experience

tomatoes in a bowl held by two gardeners

via Elaine Casap on Unsplash

It’s easier to keep a donor than to get a new one. A church that’s letting donors slip away won’t be financially sound for long. But many churches, and nonprofits in general, just don’t do the necessary things to keep ties with their donors strong.

4. Provide different giving options

People handle money very differently. Some prefer online giving, some writing checks, some paying over the phone, and some in-person cash donations.

Keep in mind that there’s a growing number of young adults who have never written a check. Online and text donations are important if you want to reach this crowd.

According to Kirsty Weakley, a full third of 18- to 24-year-olds told surveyors that they would seek another charity if not able to give by text or online, and over half said that online and text giving encouraged them to give spontaneously. And that was back in 2011, just four years after the smartphone took over the world.

“Spontaneously.” That’s important. The window of opportunity when a donor feels like giving can be short.

On the other hand, some argue that because older people tend to have more money and are more likely to give to charities, you should focus your efforts on them.

But how sound is the future of a church that focuses only on older donors?

The takeaway is that more giving options mean less chance that a potential donor will slip away.

Remember to emphasize that even small contributions are important to you. When donors are navigating some rough financial seas, it’s important to keep welcoming and encouraging their donations, however small. Once they stop giving, you may not see them again.

5. Figure out how your donors prefer to communicate

It’s about the donor, and the donor is not you.

Keep that in mind when you’re thinking through how you’re going to reach out to donors and keep in touch with them, and what kind of language you’re going to use. Marketers call this a buyer persona.

As Mary Cahalane explains, don’t just go with what seems best to you. Consider the donor.

Maybe you don’t like phones, or email, or Facebook. But if that’s how your donors prefer to communicate, you need to reach out to them in the way they’re most comfortable with.

6. Say thank you

Author and nonprofit adviser Kivi Leroux Miller did an experiment. She sent $20 donations to 12 national charities and waited to see how many thank you’s would come back.

Four. That’s it.

No donor respect. Not good enough, charity.

Recall from Adrian Sargeant the third biggest reason donors quit giving to a charity: no acknowledgment.

A thank you doesn’t have to be a huge to-do with a red carpet gala and celebrity guests. It can be as simple as an auto response email and/or acknowledgement in your newsletter. Using the membership management feature in your church management software can make this a breeze.

7. Keep donors updated

James Berkeley captures this idea with a great metaphor:

One year, I took the church youth group to Fourth of July fireworks on the beach in California. We told everyone how fun it would be. We wrote it up in the youth flier. We gathered at the beach and roasted marshmallows. This was going to be great! Then the fog rolled in. What we saw that evening was a random set of faint glows in the thick fog. That should not be the experience of the congregation following the big buildup of a stewardship campaign. After the flurry of activity, publicity, and appeals, people deserve more than random faint glows of follow-up information.

Let the donors know regularly how their gifts are bringing about changes. It’s essential for donors to feel connected to the story of how your mission is playing out and improving lives.

Also, be sure to give donors regular, clear statements of what they’ve given. That’s important not just for acknowledging their gifts but also for tax purposes. The statements should have the date of each gift, the amount, the fund or purpose, and the total amount given.

If you’re using pledges, the statement should show donors where they’re at in fulfilling their pledge. Church accounting software can greatly simplify this process.

Trust

piggy back with two kids

via Jenn Evelyn-Ann on Unsplash

Look back at Sargeant’s surveys. Two of the main reasons people cited for leaving a charity were:

  1. The charity didn’t make clear to them how the donations were being used.
  2. They felt the charity wasn’t honoring their wishes.

Those are trust failures.

Again, respect and value the donor. Your church needs to do two things to gain and keep that donor’s trust:

  1. Honor the intent behind the donor’s gift.
  2. Show the donor how the money is being used.

These two points are where the speaker in that college chapel lost me.

And, since I’m a developer and support rep for a church management/accounting software company, it’s at these two points that I have the most experience helping and guiding churches.

8. Honor the wishes of your donors

You need to spell out clearly to donors the purpose of their donation, and then you need to stick to it. If there’s any reason that you need to change the purpose, you need to be transparent with your donors about it.

It’s a matter of good faith and good stewardship. Misuse of funds is a common problem, and donors can get uneasy about your project if all they see are “random faint glows of follow-up information.”

Instead, they should see the inner workings of your project’s finances. They should see that you’re honoring what you told them to start with. It will help you gain their trust. Also, stepping back to our first theme, it will motivate them to give when they see specifically how their donations are helping.

And that brings us to our last point.

9. Report your finances

At the outset of a capital campaign or a special fundraising project, organizers need to be able to answer basic financial questions:

  • What is the fundraising goal and the deadline for reaching it?
  • How is the money going to be saved (checking account, savings, some sort of investment)?
  • If donations are going to be deposited in the same asset account with other church funds, how is the money going to be designated (or set apart) and tracked?
  • How is the money going to be spent? What expense accounts will you use and what are your projections for them?
  • What if not enough money is raised? Will money be transferred from another fund?
  • What if too much money is raised? At what point is money from the designated project fund available for other uses?

As your project progresses, report on the finances often and with transparency. You should be able to not just tell donors how much money has been raised, but answer questions like these:

  • How has the money been spent?
  • How much money is currently available in the fund?
  • Are there any debts the project has taken on, and what is the total of that debt?
  • If there is debt, what is the project’s current net worth (assets minus liabilities)?

Find the tools you need. Modern accounting software designed for nonprofits and churches can make things immensely easier.

The church-donor relationship

Here’s the central tenet, the cornerstone around which everything comes together: respect and value the donor.

Think about the donors, who they are, what they want, what motivates them, how you can make things easy for them, and what makes them trust you.

  • Work with your donors to cultivate a shared vision for your church
  • Value them
  • Acknowledge them
  • Communicate with them
  • Show them what you’re doing with their gifts
  • Listen to them

In the end, the “donation formula that works” is not a formula at all. It’s a relationship.

If you’re looking for more church fundraising tips, check out these articles on the Capterra church management blog:

Looking for Church Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Church Management software solutions.

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Robert Knecht

Robert Knecht is a web developer and support specialist at Icon Systems. We help churches thrive, grow, and save money and time with precision church management software tools.

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