By Meredith McNabb
Associate Director for Educational Programming
Lake Institute on Faith & Giving
A lot of nonprofit organizations are out of breath in January after the end-of-the-year nonprofit fundraising rush, and in plenty of religious nonprofit organizations there’s also been an end-of-the-year budgeting dash plus an end-of-the-year holiday crunch: it might feel like the time is right just to try to recover and to think about generosity another day. But now is actually the perfect time to take key action steps toward solid fundraising and deep generosity that can last all year—and perhaps make for less of a rush-dash-crunch eleven months from now. Here are four strategic steps that can help set up your congregation or religious nonprofit for the year ahead:
1. Talk (or Write or Post) About Money
One common point of resistance when organizations start to consider how they could spread out their development work across the whole year is something like “We don’t want to ask too often and inadvertently turn donors off.” That is wise—but there are ways to build generosity that aren’t centered around asking for contributions. Particularly at this time of year, all those New Year’s resolution-makers are looking for meaning and health and personal and spiritual growth: now could be the ideal opportunity to offer some wisdom out of your theological tradition about the right use of money.
The start of the year is a chance to build understanding and invite people into thoughtful faith development about money, something that touches most aspects of our lives. Tell a story, share a resource, lift up scripture or a meaningful quotation from your tradition that touches on what it looks like to have a positive, faithful relationship to money, individually and as a community. These efforts can be especially freeing for leaders who feel awkward about asking for money—there most likely isn’t a particular campaign right now, and it can be a more relaxed moment for thoughtful spiritual growth and understanding with respect to financial resources.
2. Look Ahead…
Now is a great time to make your plans about development work for the year if you haven’t already. What’s (at least) one new thing you or your organization could do each quarter this year that would have a positive impact on your fundraising? Put those goals on the calendar now, and think through what those pieces would require in terms of board/leadership planning, volunteer recruitment and training, budgeting, and communications. Do you want to collect stories of generosity for the fall, or to solicit special gifts for a summertime initiative, or to overhaul how you say thank you for first-time gifts? Does your online giving need a redesign, or just some good PR among your potential donors?
Identifying these kinds of achievable, meaningful objectives will multiply the opportunities to find the right people to join you in these efforts, and it will allow your development goals to be foundational pieces of your work—not time-crunched add-ons. Letting development goals be priorities, especially if development is only a portion of one’s leadership role, prevents them from becoming the first things to fall off the calendar when unexpected challenges arise later on.
3. …Look Backward
Take a thoughtful look at your fundraising efforts last year: what worked well, and what did not? “Cost to raise a dollar”— use a fundraising expense ratio is a concept that professional fundraisers calculate (and debate the usefulness of). But some basic number-crunching can be useful for development in any organization—was the fall festival (or the golf outing, or the school auction, etc.) a financial success? What was the response to the mailed invitations to give? When during the year were givers most likely to start or update their electronic giving?
But qualitative analysis—and spiritual reflection—matters, too. Who are the donors who notably changed their giving last year, and what motivated those changes? Which development efforts depleted the energy of staff or volunteers—and which ones generated excitement and/or meaning within the congregation or organization? Did our fundraising efforts align with our mission, vision, and values? Were there any surprises—positive or negative—in how our constituents expressed their generosity? The backward look over the past year’s efforts can reveal patterns and point leadership toward wise decisions for the future.
4. Double Up
Congregational and religious nonprofit leaders rarely have too few responsibilities to cover—and fundraising work can feel like just one more thing to put on top of an already-full agenda. However, there are significant points of overlap where the work of development aligns beautifully with other pieces of religious leadership, and merely paying attention to those synergies can have powerful results.
- A fundraising lens: Take a look at your organization’s public face—the website and social media presence, a physical sign or façade—and review things like your mission and vision statements. These can almost always use fresh eyes on them to look for what’s out-of-date or confusing—but reviewing them with an eye to how a donor (or a potential donor) might see them can reveal other needed updates as well: are we communicating what we’re about and the impact we have and making it as easy as possible for people to join us in that work?
- Generosity icebreaker: Let people get in touch with the spiritual sides of their own (and each other’s) generosity in a low-stakes way. At the start of the next board meeting or other gathering of leaders, staff, or volunteers, invite people to turn to their neighbor (or put them into two-person breakout rooms…) and ask them to share for a minute each about one of the most meaningful gifts they ever received, or about a person they’ve known whose generosity they admire. A quick, but self-awakening question can help the tone of the whole group move towards abundance.
- Everyone has to eat! Set a goal of grabbing a coffee or a lunch with a different donor (including those who give a lot and those who don’t) every week—not to ask them for a gift, but just to spend time with them—and along the course of sitting down with them, ask them what it is that they value about your organization.
There’s all kinds of work to be done throughout the year to build up development in any religious organization, but the start of the calendar year is a great time to frame the work well and lay a good foundation.
Questions for Reflection
- What’s one new thing you or your organization could do in this first quarter of the year that would have a positive impact on your fundraising?
- Who will be the first person you’ll invite to coffee or lunch to learn about what they value about your organization?