“Ladies and gentlemen,” the priest announces from the lectern, “it’s your favorite Sunday of the year... budget Sunday!” The parishioners sigh and settle in for what the priest knows is the mass many would have skipped if they had known budget talk was on the schedule.
“Please take a look at the insert in your bulletin,” he continues. “You’ll see that we didn’t meet our budget this year … again.” His audience knows where this is going: The church is struggling to accomplish its mission, but the congregation is not pulling its weight in terms of monetary contributions. The end of the fiscal year is certainly no holiday for churches, priests or congregations.
Do not ask, and you shall not receive
Clergy in the United States struggle to talk about money and fundraising. They’re even more tongue-tied about endowments and planned giving. The United States may consider itself the most religious Western nation, yet its churches rank near the bottom of U.S. charities in soliciting and closing major and planned gifts. Instead, contributions take the form of small cash donations put in the collection plate.
Of course there are notable exceptions, and there are faith-based organizations that have been pioneers in planned giving. Nevertheless, at a time when secular non-profits are building their endowments with large planned gifts, churches are still asking for operating support only.
It’s not that churches don’t need long-term reserves. Deferred maintenance on aging buildings often results in costly structural crises, avoidable with a maintenance endowment. Church work is becoming more staff intensive, and budgets for salaries and benefits increase steadily. And as governments at all levels cut back on social programs, many congregations are stepping in with aid efforts that strain weekly collection totals. If anyone needs an endowment, it’s a church!
Church-goers make planned gifts… just not to their church
Among Catholics and Protestants, per-member giving as a percentage of income decreased from 3.1 percent in 1968 to 2.6 percent in 1997. As concerning as this trend is, it’s the absence of a sustained planned giving program in most churches that really represents a missed opportunity.
The few wealthiest churchgoers are being solicited, but their upper-middle class brethren — the same prospects who receive and respond to planned giving promotions from their alma maters and their local hospitals — haven’t heard the message that their church has to build its endowment and wants them to consider a planned gift.
What the congregation hears from clergy on planned giving (*cue the cricket chirp soundtrack*):
Unfortunately, part of the blame for this planned giving blind spot rests with clergy and their stewardship committees. While clergy may think about spiritual matters in the framework of eternity, they are often more comfortable asking for money that will be used immediately to relieve human needs and letting providence provide for the long term.
They were not trained to be fundraisers or taxplanners, and are reluctant to speak about topics with which they’re not familiar. Their lay advisors on the stewardship committee may have financial backgrounds, but often lack the expertise to launch and administer a planned giving program for the congregation.
With neither the clergy nor the advisors taking the lead, endowment building and promotion of estate gifts remain absent on churches’ to-do lists.
A prospect base to be envied
Churches have a prospect base that would be the envy of many nonprofits: a geographically concentrated group who know and identify with each other and consider their affiliation with the church to be a defining characteristic of their identities.
Starting the dialogue
Churches that make endowment building a goal can be strengthened in their decision by data showing that congregations make major and planned gifts when they are encouraged by the church leaders and by marketing materials to do so. They can also observe the benefits that promoting planned gifts has brought to arts and social welfare organizations.
These are non- traditional fundraisers with whom churches may identify themselves more than with large colleges and hospitals. When these organizations start marketing endowment giving, hidden donors and expectancies come to light, gift discussions begin, immediate support increases, and a consensus forms that the organization must continue to make a difference in the future and that it needs long-term financial strength to do that.
The job, then, is to convince these prospects that their church must begin to build its endowment. What’s the first step? Most churches will need professional advice to make a case for a successful planned giving program… then follows sustained marketing and the ability to followup with donors.
Spend money to raise money
Hiring a fundraising consultant will give the church a goal, a plan and a timetable. A professional consultant is also the safe person on the planned giving team who can ask about the wealth and giving inclination of individuals in the congregation — data that is the prerequisite of any successful fundraising campaign. (Of course, the consultant will need cooperative “moles” to answer her questions.)
The consultant can also help close the gifts that will follow. The limitations in expertise and response time of even the most talented volunteer board can fatally delay a gift commitment.
Marketing tools that work
Churches promote planned gifts in a slightly different environment than other non-profits. The recognized spokesperson (usually the priest) may convince prospects in a general way of the need to build the church’s endowment. But he is unlikely ever to become comfortable discussing details of the gift plans that will build the endowment.
Members of the stewardship committee can provide valuable technical advice but few want to become the parish point person for gift planning. And few individual churches have yet hired a full-time endowment giving officer.
If no one person is responsible start to finish for planned giving, marketing in the church becomes a two-step process:
1.) Dialogue about the need to build the endowment, initiated by the minister or the stewardship chair.
2.) Marketing materials that raise the congregation’s consciousness about the benefits of planned gifts in leveraging larger contributions. Stewardship volunteers may, for instance, write (or ghost-write) a regular column in the church bulletin, place a year-end giving guide on the literature table, or organize an estate-planning coffee. These communications can point prospects to an off-site professional for follow-up gift information.
Because bulletins get lost by Tuesday…
Church bulletins get read, yes. But they also get lost by Tuesday morning under the reading pile on the kitchen table. For a sustained marketing presence, more and more churches are implementing a gift planning website that describes “gifts anyone can make,” like bequests and “gifts that pay you back,” like a charitable gift annuity.
A well done planned giving website will capture the attention of many long-time church members — even the seniors who use the Internet to email their grandchildren and check their investments online. Seniors are the fastest growing group of Americans on the Internet. This ready audience (savvy, financially secure and happy to find that their church is online) will spend a lot of time on an easy to understand, interactive website about endowment giving.
The gifts are there
Churches need not abandon their commitment to meet human needs today if they also plan for their financial future. Parishioners will understand that attending to the poor, providing social outreach and maintaining the roof will take even more money tomorrow than it does today.
They will understand that an endowment will help relieve future congregations from the dilemma of having to choose one financial priority among many because of a lack of revenue. They will agree that planned gifts make endowment building commitments easier.
Planned giving donors are sitting in churches today. They just need to be shown the light.
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