By Mark Wingfield
Mark Wingfield is associate pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, and holds the Executive Certificate in Religious Fundraising (ECRF) designation* from Lake Institute on Faith & Giving. He is a former journalist who is active in the nonprofit sector, having helped start four nonprofits and currently serving on the boards of several others.
There is no sure-fire way to raise money.
Despite what you may hear from consultants or experts or those who have had one-off successes in fundraising, context and timing make for an uneven playing field.
Sure, there are some techniques and practices that work better than others and that have stood the test of time—or stood the test of a period of time. But the thing we all need to be reminded of is that what worked for me may not work for you and what worked for you 10 years ago may not work for you today.
Recently I organized a GoFundMe page for a nonprofit on whose board I serve. Many people have great success with this type of crowdsourcing. I put together a compelling case, had good photos and videos and links to third-party validation of our cause—and raised less than $2,000. What seems to work for everyone else didn’t work for us, and it wasn’t for lack of effort or for lack of a good cause.
But the mere creation of the GoFundMe campaign sparked the interest of a major donor, who committed offline the entire $50,000 goal.
We weren’t seeking a major donor, but a major donor found us anyway. Unexpected results from an unexpected place. The purpose of this campaign, I thought, was to reel in a bunch of new small donors who could be cultivated into repeat donors in the days ahead. But that’s not what happened.
By the measure I had set for success, this campaign was a complete flop. But by the measure of meeting the needs of the nonprofit, the campaign sparked a success.
Why, though? Because we told our story and identified our need. That’s Fundraising 101: Make a compelling case. Tell your story. Explain the need. How the need gets met will always be secondary to telling the story.
In the Christian tradition, we often quote Jesus, who said, “You have not because you ask not.” And anyone who’s ever done fundraising knows that while there’s obvious truth to this statement, there also are times when you ask loudly and still have not.
What’s the difference between success and failure, between the times when we ask and receive and the times when we ask and do not receive? That’s hard to say. Sometimes we just don’t know.
Several years ago, I produced a beautiful, full-color brochure explaining all the good that happens through giving to our church budget. It told our story succinctly and was illustrated with plenty of visuals. It was a beautiful piece. We mailed them into every member home. We had stacks of them at every entrance to the sanctuary for several weeks.
Not long after, a team of lay leaders met to brainstorm ways to increase giving in the church. Someone said, “What we need is a nice brochure that explains all the good that happens through giving to the church.” Everyone quickly agreed. The staff member in the meeting explained that we already had such a piece. The lay leaders around the table didn’t believe him. They had no memory of such a piece. Even after he identified the piece and all its content, only one person in the room remembered seeing it.
What had happened? Upon investigation, the stacks of brochures outside the sanctuary had simply been overlooked. And of all the people around the table, most were married males who didn’t routinely open or even see the mail at their homes. We had a compelling story to tell, but those who needed to hear it missed it entirely. The very solution the team of laypeople proposed to tell our story had passed them by already.
On several occasions, I’ve heard Rick Warren, founding pastor of Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., tell stories about the early days of his church’s growth. The success of his “seeker-friendly” approach has inspired replication nationwide. But he’s always quick to urge pastors not to take his successful model and drop it in their context unchanged. Yes, there are some transferable ideas, but context matters.
And there’s one other key thing, he says: We only see the things his church did that worked. For every idea that worked, there might have been 12 or 15 that didn’t. The lesson: It takes perseverance and variation.
That seems to be true in fundraising as well. One size doesn’t fit all, and what works for me may not work for you. The important thing is to keep trying. Keep telling the story.
*The Executive Certificate in Religious Fundraising (ECRF) is a four-day intensive course that provides the research, tools, and customized training to meet the growing needs of leaders in religious communities and fundraisers of faith-based organizations.