Parish fundraising tips from the pros

Mistakes to avoid when making 'the ask'

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Year-end is usually crunch time for rectors and vestries scrambling to raise the needed funds to meet their annual budgets.

The time to make “the ask” is especially ripe this year, as some donors may be feeling more generous given the lingering uncertainty surrounding the tax code. Hurricane Sandy has also brought the idea of giving to the minds of some donors who might otherwise have been sitting on the sidelines.

Whether churches need money to fund that next great program or simply to keep the lights on, there are a few mistakes clergy and church leaders should avoid when making appeals, say fundraising consultants.

Not Asking in Person

Suzanne Culhane of Bob Carter Companies, a fundraising consultation firm in Sarasota, Fla., recalled a small parish she worked with that lost a $15,000 per year pledge. The pledge was lost because the rector and vestry members were afraid to sit down with a parishioner to discuss his discontent and concerns in person, and so they sent him an e-mail instead. As a result, the parish’s music and outreach budgets were “significantly” compromised, said Culhane.

Culhane also worked with a religious community that she said “refused to take collective ownership of fundraising, out of fear of the unknown and asking.” Instead, they placed the entire burden of raising $4 million annually on the one priest in the community who was the perceived extrovert.

“This priest burned out in just a few years and wound up hospitalized,” Culhane remembered.

Too many times clergy and church leaders avoid face-to-face solicitation. Culhane said  several clergy she worked with told her that face-to-face meetings “aren’t necessary,” tried to have her or someone else do the asking, and some even canceled or postponed major fundraising campaigns once they realized they would be required to ask for money directly.

That’s a mistake though, Culhane advised, because face-to-face asking is the most effective method of fundraising and produces the highest response rate and the largest gifts.

And while many clergy think they don’t have any natural ability for fundraising, are uncomfortable because of pastoral relationships, or may feel guilty about raising money for their own salaries, according to Culhane, it’s wise to ask anyway.

According to Culhane, it behooves any parish fundraising effort to have the clergy intimately involved,  because it is the clergy who tend to have the strongest relationships with people, hold respect and credibility in the community, and are knowledgeable about personal circumstances helpful to donor identification and solicitation efforts.

If the right request is being made to the right person at the right time, the donor shouldn’t feel “funny,” Culhane explained, but rather, they will feel honored to be engaged. She also pointed out that it’s helpful for clergy to consider fundraising as ministry.

“It’s more about relationships than dollars.”

The Spaghetti-Dinner Effect

Culhane recently met with a parish that wanted to start a $2 million capital campaign. When she asked what their fundraising program entailed, the senior warden told her about their “famous” spaghetti dinner. The warden then went on in great detail about how many boxes of spaghetti are needed, how the serving is done and her fear of running out of food.

Culhane recalled having to suppress a sigh, especially when the rector later told her the supper barely broke even and required a significant amount of time to organize.

“That’s not fundraising,” stated Culhane.

She explained that while they may be helpful for community building, spaghetti dinners – or whatever iteration they may take – raise very little money. Not to mention, she added, the parish’s financial resources and people get exhausted in the process.

Culhane advised that, instead, parishes should “devote energy to strengthening their annual giving and major gifts efforts.”

They can start by asking questions such as, “When is the last time we sat down and asked someone for a major gift?” And “Is our giving growing?”


Sometimes it’s difficult to tell who dislikes stewardship talks more – the clergy or the congregation. Often, talks begin with fumbling apology and a promise to “keep it short.”

But that’s a mistake, according to Marc Pitman, founder of, based in Waterville, Maine. That kind of apology can put donors in a negative frame of mind about giving, he pointed out, and position giving as drudgery rather than a privilege.

“We never need to apologize for our stewardship talks,” said Pitman.

Pitman explained that, instead, offering people an opportunity to give or “invest” in the work of the Kingdom is an amazing privilege. Giving, he said, helps “sanctify and set apart the fruit of the best part of our lives.”

“Being able to give a portion of that back to God can actually be an act of worship,” Pitman said.

A lighter approach can also help sometimes. On stewardship Sundays, Pitman has told congregations the story about the pastor who stood at the pulpit and said, “I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is we all have all the money we need to do all we sense God is calling us to do. The bad news is that it’s still in your wallets.”

Too Vague

Giving is too often seen as a “vague, nebulous concept,” according to Pitman. But that vagueness can have a negative effect, especially in an age when financial transparency is critical for gaining donors’ trust.

Being specific, instead, can prompt some donors to step up to the plate.

Pitman recently asked a congregation what they thought it would take for their church to do only what they did last year, which included community outreach, minimal building maintenance and snow plowing.

“Guesses were all over the place,” he recalled, “but low.”

The congregants of that small parish were surprised to learn exactly how much the church needed to raise ($250,000). They also appreciated knowing the dollar amount, as it helped them to realize “they were the ones carrying out the work of Christ,” said Pitman.

“All the great ideas they had – many of them truly helpful and within the mission of the congregation – were dependent on their generosity.”


(Veronica Dagher is New York City-based reporter and an Education for Ministry graduate. She is a recipient of a Religion Newswriters Foundation Lilly Scholarship and a parishioner at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City.)

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