4 Principles for Engaging Donors Who Care About Making a Difference

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A fundamental challenge for any church is to explain to its members that their donations are making a difference because the church is making a difference. The problem for many churches is that their donor strategy is centered on Mature or Silent Generation (born between 1928 and 1945) in mind. Matures give primarily from a sense of obligation and loyalty.

Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1980) want a more organic relationship with their church. Building that relationship starts with showing how their financial support is or isn’t making a difference.

Boomers are the largest generation alive today. The sheer number of boomers means that their giving potential dwarfs that of any other generation. As a practical matter, no church or donor-dependent nonprofit organization can afford to ignore boomers and their preferences. In the not-too-distant future, boomer mortality will take its inevitable course. The Pew Research Center projects that by 2028, the population of Gen Xers will exceed the population boomers. By the time 2030 arrives, Gen Xers will supplant the boomers as the generation that matters most when it comes to charitable donations.

If a church wants to create a more authentic, more productive relationship with its boomer and Gen Xer members for fundraising purposes, what might it look like? As a first step, church leaders need to build consensus in the congregation around these four principles:

1. Agree on what matters. The first step is a rigorous review of the church’s mission and mission statement. Is it a general endorsement of Christian principles or does it describe the unique call of this congregation? Is it an artifact of history, or does it speak to the aspiration of the current congregation at this point in history? Setting appropriate goals — and addressing the informational needs of the church’s donor base — is impossible unless church leadership can develop a consensus on what the congregation is called to achieve.

2. Measure what matters. Whatever a congregation believes it is called to do, Gen Xers will want the church’s results to be measured. They care about whether their church is efficient and effective, whether it realizes its mission, and whether it summarizes and reports its operating and financial results. The most appropriate group of metrics is one that reflects the mission of the congregation. The key is to develop a series of metrics and apply them objectively.

3. Report the results in a transparent manner. In a donor relationship based primarily on loyalty and obligation, the content and frequency of reporting doesn’t matter very much (the Matures) but in the near future, when Gen Xer engagement will matter a great deal, this attitude will become problematic.

4. Own the results. Too often, church leaders adjust the congregational narrative to highlight only those initiative that are functioning well. Celebrating success is important for many reasons, not the least of which is that it builds donor confidence. But if clergy and lay leaders don’t take responsibility for performance through candid disclosure, how can the congregation appreciate the challenges they face? A willingness to measure and report on performance is insufficient; it must be accompanied by a balanced assessment of how actual performance fared against projections made by church leaders.

excerpt from an article by James Elrod Jr., faculty member of Yale Divinity school

originally posted in January 2022 on Lewis Center for Church Leadership

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