By Eddie Pipkin

Because we like to donate to a variety of charitable causes, my wife and I received a slew of emails during the last couple of weeks of 2018.  Non-profit groups are well aware of the volume of end-of-year giving (with some studies suggesting that charitable organizations receive as much as one-third of their donations in December and some 12% in the last three days of the year).  Every organization our family made a contribution to in the past three years sent us an appeal for year-end giving – with the glaring exception of the local church congregations to which we donate.  Churches need to continue to rethink how they reach out to givers who support their ministry, and January is a great time to solidify a plan for the rest of the year.

Of course, we’re talking about getting ready for end-of-the-year 2019 appeals here (time machines notwithstanding), but one of the most common of all themes in “giving and church” conversations is the “we need to have a year-round stewardship focus” insight, which usually occurs when everybody is exhausted at the end of the current year’s less than stellar stewardship campaign and then forgotten until the frantic rush to plan the next year’s stewardship campaign.  Well, now is a perfect time to chart out your stewardship/generosity communications (and education) strategy for this year (if you haven’t already).

If you haven’t yet done these things for 2019, you are starting from behind:

  • Have a team. You should already have a robust team in place, whose members are excited about generosity as a lifestyle and the power of motivating others to give.  Motivational, creative people are essential (not necessarily the numbers-crunchers who are usually recruited for this role).  The leader in this area should build a team with specific talents and duties: creative folk and tacticians.  True believers in stewardship and the generous lifestyle.  THIS TEAM SHOULD BE DIFFERENT FROM YOUR FINANCE TEAM.  In a tragic, oft-repeated mistake, churches frequently try to give a finance team the responsibility for stewardship education and inspiration.  Much unhappiness results, and little good transpires.
  • Have a schedule. The team should build a detailed schedule based on what you want to accomplish and when.  Some of these items will be once-a-year events (like the annual stewardship campaign conducted by most congregations), but most will be regularly-scheduled updates, challenges, and opportunities for ministry supporters.  For successful efforts, regular supporter engagement includes monthly updates, narrative story sharing on the effectiveness of giving, regular sharing of personal testimonies for givers and ministry recipients, regular challenges to think with a stewardship mindset, regular micro-explanations using infographics of exactly where the money goes, and regular expressions of thanks.  Maximize technological platforms to engage people!
  • Have a regular rotation of education opportunities. Don’t just challenge people to give – give people a full menu of ways to become stronger disciples and live fuller lives by learning more about stewardship.  You should provide access to classes, workshops, seminars, books, podcasts, studies, and online resources to which you can direct those who are led to learn more.  It should be easy to direct a person interested in learning more about stewardship to such resources – and the available resources should cover a wide range of learning styles and stages of development.  It is not necessary to reinvent the wheel.  You don’t have to create 10 multi-week classes to accomplish this goal.  There is a wealth of excellent material, easily accessible, to which you can direct people.  Your team should also be coordinating with all small groups and life groups and ministry areas to be sure that a stewardship emphasis is a regular part of what they do.
  • Be Transparent. All information related to budgets and the financial procedures and processes of your congregation should be easily accessible to anyone who is interested.  Your budget should be published (available online and in print, hopefully in both the traditional wonky spreadsheet form and in graphics-based and narrative form for ‘normal’ folk).  There should be a clear path for asking questions and receiving answers.  Regular financial health updates should be provided.

Once you’ve established the basics, Work The Calendar.  This is one of the things that local and national non-profits have mastered.  Local churches should take notice.  When I wrote that we had not heard an end-of-year-giving appeal from local churches, that wasn’t strictly true.  Several weekly newsletters (e-version and print) included end-of-year-giving articles and suggestions, but they were generally formal and stuffy in nature, a little boring and routine, and, therefore, easily glossed over.  In contrast, arts groups, conservation activists, and humanitarian organizations sent direct, robust, often dramatic, and always verbally and photographically interesting appeals.  These appeals always define an immediate problem we can help solve or an opportunity we can instantly leverage.  They make it feel like our response matters and that, if we ignore them, an opportunity for impact will be lost.

Ministry emails may avoid this kind of direct appeal out of a sense of a politeness (not wanting to bother people or turn them off with our neediness) or out of a sense that giving is an automatic obligation that disciples should respond to (implying that we somehow demean it by giving it the old razzle-dazzle).  I don’t know anybody who isn’t passionate about the work of their ministry, though.  Let that authentic, God-centered passion be reflected in the necessary work of challenging people to join us.

Many non-profits don’t just work the end-of-year part of the calendar: they are making obvious calendar connections all year long:

  • Utilize the holidays. Churches can do fun and inspiring giving challenges related to everything from MLK Day to Valentine’s Day to the Superbowl.  Some of these will be serious appeals to support social justice causes.  Some will be whimsical in nature.  But the calendar tunes people to give, and more focused opportunities mean increased possibilities of landing on someone’s passion.
  • Don’t forget the headlines. The news cycle creates opportunities to connect your ministry to the things on people’s minds.  We see this regularly reflected in humanitarian relief efforts in which people are actively seeking to respond to the needs they are seeing as they watch disasters unfold on their televisions.  You are probably doing powerful humanitarian outreach and social justice work every week – use the news to give people a tangible way to respond to the work you are already doing.  One interesting additional item in the news that has been affecting all non-profits, including churches, is the change in tax law that is taking effect this year.  Be frank with your ministry supporters in relating the way in which donations to charitable organizations are reportedly down in 2018 due to less favorable tax rules for donations.  (And this also reminds me of one of my favorite annually missed giving opportunities – encouraging people to think about your ministry when it’s tax refund time!)
  • Ride the cultural zeitgeist. People spend a lot of time fixating on what’s happening in popular culture.  Ride that wave when you can.  Create fun challenges based on blockbuster movies and the latest memes.

Be creative, and I don’t mean just in how you present your message.  I mean pay attention to what is trending in the non-profit giving sector and using those trends to your advantage (which is, of course, an excellent example of responsible stewardship).

  • Donation “Match” Drives. Non-profits routinely anchor their appeals to the idea that your financial gift can be doubled “if you act today.”  This kind of challenge creates a sense of urgency because it feels like an opportunity to give with extra oomph.  It is a strategy rarely used with local congregations, but it could easily be.  This is possible if we have established relationships with regular cornerstone givers (and every congregation has these faithful supporters).  Rather than just assuming these cornerstone givers are going to keep doing their thing like they always have, we should be working directly with them, acknowledging their importance and asking them about their dreams for the future of our ministry.  If we know they are going to give at a certain level, we can engage them to support a matching campaign.  We might even get them excited about an extra donation geared just for that purpose.  Generous givers love new reasons to give with impact.
  • Targeted Giving. Take every opportunity to give people a chance to boost individual aspects of your ministry.  While we are always acknowledging the support of a general budget (and reminding people why that is important), people are passionate about individual initiatives and get excited about giving to them.  Not only does this give them a chance to feel like they are empowering their passions – as we say in church circles, “what’s on their heart” – it creates a habit of giving that leads to greater support of more week-to-week support ministry.
  • Say Thank You. One of the things that routinely distinguishes other non-profits from churches is their diligence in acknowledging support.  Far beyond the standard form letter sent for tax purposes, many groups send handwritten thank you notes, postcards from people impacted by donations, and updates about the work donations are supporting.  Churches can do a lot to create more of a sense of excitement and partnership with ministry supporters through individual communication, nods of appreciation, and supporter events.

What are your ministry plans for encouraging stewardship and generosity in 2019?  Are you trying some new things?  Are you sticking with the tried and true?  Do you feel well-positioned with a strong team and a clear plan for the year ahead?  Or do you feel thwarted in pursuing your goals?  What are some great new ideas you’ve heard about that aren’t listed here?  What’s your unique story?