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The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

Stepping up our Congregational Fundraising Game


An entire philanthropic industry, complete with journals, associations, specialized vendors, academic research, and special reports, exists to support nonprofit fundraising. I know because in my day job as a nonprofit executive, I’m bombarded with articles, tools and reports designed to help me raise the $3.5 million that I need annually to feed 15,000 people a month. Ministers can learn a lot from this industry.

For example, a report came out recently from Abila, a software and services provider, that offers some helpful insights into donor behavior as it differs by generation:

  • Millennials (born 1981–1997) are now the largest generation in the workforce, but they give less money to fewer organizations than members of the generations born before 1946. (This will come as no surprise to congregations who have been successful in attracting Millennials.)
  • Millennials do give, but they give differently. Both they and Gen Xers (born 1965–1980) are more likely to be motivated by passion for a cause, while Baby Boomers and older are more likely to be motivated by the knowledge that the organization relies on their donations.
  • Generally speaking, the most popular cause for Baby Boomers (born 1946–1964) and older is places of worship, while the most popular cause for both Gen Xers and Millennials is children/youth development. Children/youth is followed by health/disease charities and social service organizations for Gen Xers and by health/disease charities and animal welfare organizations/shelters for Millennials.  Note that places of worship do not make the top three for either of these younger generations.
  • The preferred method of donation for Millennials and Gen Xers is online, while the preferred method of donation for Baby Boomers and older is still the check.
  • Interestingly, all generations prefer to receive short emails or letters over other forms of communication, but they differ significantly regarding preferred frequency. Millennials prefer to hear from the organizations they support twice a month or more. Gen Xers prefer monthly communication, Boomers like to receive communication quarterly or more, and the Mature generation (born 1945 and before) prefers quarterly or less.

How we communicate

Of course, generational identity is not the only determining factor in donor behavior.  How organizations communicate, for example, makes a significant difference: 72% of all respondents in this study said that poor content would affect whether they continue to donate.  When asked what would cause them to stop donating, 35% said they would stop if the content were too vague, 24% if the content were dull and boring, and 19% if it had an inconvenient format. Many of the “transgressions” that would cause people to stop had to do not with content but with personalization—24% would stop if the content had incorrect information about the donor, 12% if it wasn’t suited to the donor’s age, and 10% if it wasn’t personalized.

The study also found that quality content that is quickly consumable is far preferable to long-form content.  The top six donor communication forms were identified as:

  • Short, self-contained email with no links (75%)
  • Short letter or online article of 2-3 paragraphs (73%)
  • An email with links to other articles (65%)
  • A two-minute or less YouTube video (60%)
  • An annual report delivered via mail (56%)
  • Facebook posts (53%%)

And by the way, when reading written content, 67% are still reading at the end of one paragraph, 58% at the end of two paragraphs, 44% at the end of three paragraphs, and only 34% at the end of four paragraphs.  Hopefully, blog readers have a higher tolerance for multiple paragraphs!

Finally, acknowledgement via personalized thank-you emails and thank-you notes produced the highest positive or neutral reactions from respondents (either they would love to receive it or they wouldn’t mind).  71% of respondents reported feeling more engaged as a result of receiving personalized notes while only 15% felt less engaged.

Congregational fundraising

So, what does this have to do with congregations, many of which talk about “stewardship” rather than giving, do so only once a year, send the same appeals and acknowledgements to everyone, and worry that their members have no more money to give.

First, we need to get over our fear of asking for money. Our work is important, everyone else is asking (including me in my nonprofit role), and if congregations don’t ask directly and make a compelling case for members’ giving (other than that the church might close without it), the money will go elsewhere.

What else might we do differently?

  • Begin to think of fundraising as a steady, year-long drum beat of “asks,” direct and indirect, that involves multiple touches—email, letters, annual reports, YouTube videos, special events, and anything else that works.
  • Stop treating all members as if they think and behave in the same way. Recognize that younger members give for different reasons than older members, want to be contacted more frequently, and are more likely to appreciate digital forms of communication.
  • When in doubt, ask. Ministers may not know each donor’s detailed giving history (although we should), but we know each donor’s approximate age and the ways in which they participate in the life of the congregation, and we can ask what kind of communication each prefers, how often they want to hear from us, and how they like to be thanked.
  • Acknowledge contributions in a personal way.

Early in my first call, I realized that my head-to-head competition for member dollars, the person who was literally visiting the same people and sitting on the same nubby couches as me, was the vice president for development at Iowa State University. It became very clear to me then, and it is still clear to me now, that the typical congregation’s low-key approach to fundraising is not sustainable. When it comes to raising money, we all need to step up our game.

Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.

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