A healthy approach to competition

What’s the best way to convince donors to give to your ministry? This will sound counter-intuitive, but hear me out. I’ve visited hundreds of ministries, heard many leaders explain their program design and rationale, and I know how compelling and confidence-inspiring their explanations are. The greatest opportunity for more effective fundraising is to increase the complexity of our messaging to donors. I don’t think I have ever read a fundraising appeal as effective as hearing the leaders talk about the rationale behind their work. I know many people don’t want a lot of details, but I think that those who take their giving to Christian ministry seriously would be very interested in receiving the kind of information I am suggesting, and they are probably also your higher than average donors.

Why you should give donors more information

I’ll make my case with these observations:

  • In sales training, you learn to make two sales. The first sale is to convince the prospect they need what you are selling. Once convinced, then you sell them on why they should buy your specific offering. A lot of fundraising appeals only deal with the first ‘sale’. We say “People are starving, people are lost without Christ, and we’re there to make a difference! There is a great NEED and you can HELP!” We might even show pictures of those poor, suffering people. That might be enough to induce some ‘guilt’ donations, but this strategy alone will not get you where you want to go. It only raises awareness of the issue. Yes, you must build awareness, and yes, pictures help to tell a story, but don’t be content with just that for your fundraising strategy.
  • A basic attempt at the second sale is to impress people in some way about your ministry, such as how many meals you served or how many people made decisions for Christ (“One hundred and forty-two billion people converted”). This is the McDonald’s or statistical approach, and it at least shows that your ministry is busy. A reputational approach distinguishes yourself based on longevity (“Since 1285 we’ve been…”) or size (“The solar system’s largest…”). These approaches can work well enough because many people are too lazy to make their own decisions, and so rely on the crowd to make a decision for them. Their assumption is, if you are that old or that big or did that much, then obviously others must think you are worthy of support and that’s good enough for them. But is this the best we can do?  I don’t think so. It’s fine to have some pride in the size and history of your ministry, and I throw around statistics too, but I think the case for support needs to go beyond all that.
  • A more sophisticated approach is the business approach (which is all the current rage). Fundraising appeals talk about cost effectiveness (“130% of your donation goes to good works because we found a way to make money on our overhead!”), leverage (“For every dollar you give, the government will add another one hundred and thirty-three…”), efficiency (“We can innoculate 8,531 people per hour at our one doctor clinic”), and return on investment (“For every dollar you invest, 300 people will…”). Measurements such as these are fine, and they are useful to a degree, but I question how applicable they are as the final selection criteria between ministries, especially those that are focused on evangelism and individual change. I know you can measure pretty well anything, but how do you account for seeds that are planted in a student one year by a Christian worker at a university, and the marketplace ministry that ultimately leads the graduate to the Lord ten years later on?  Is one more worthy of support because they get to count the decision? A business approach requires results, and the results sometimes are quite separate from the intervention. This approach also devalues the effort that goes into getting results. Who would attempt the impossible if only the result counts? Would you turn a project or a person away because they might bring your numbers down? Or we can be highly efficient in dealing with people, and to keep the efficiency levels high we give up the capacity to spend time and really love a person by caring for them, listening to them and simply being there for them. The essence of Christianity is relationship, and a business approach doesn’t account for that. Again, there is great value in this approach, but it’s not the best way to choose between ministries.

A new mindset for fundraisers

There is a better way to ‘compete.’ A donation is not a guilt offering or a business transaction. It is an act of worship. Every donation represents a donor who is voluntarily participating in the mission of God. We must not reduce fundraising to ‘selling’ our ministries to donors. The corporate model of revenue generation and all that goes with it is simply not the appropriate model for Christian ministry. We are not selling. We are not begging. We are actively working on God’s mission and inviting others to help us as we do. So with so many ministries sharing similar missions, what is an appropriate way to ask for support?

When I receive an appeal for a donation my first question is, “I understand the need, but what do you think the problem really is?” and my second is, “What is your methodology?” I then look for the answers. I’m tired of giving money to fund methods of questionable value that address only the superficial aspects of the problem. I want real change. Lasting change.

How to distinguish your ministry to donors

I think the invitation to support should be pretty straight-forward. Explain your logic model. That’s it. That is the best way to ‘compete’ with other Christian ministries. It doesn’t say you are better than everyone else. It simply says, “Here’s how we see the problem or opportunity, these are the values and assumptions we base our strategy on, and this is the theory of change we use to design our programs and services.” Donors are now free to compare your logic model with another, and see which one is most compelling for them. The logic model gets down to the real, substantive differences between ministries. Is this a healthy way to differentiate yourself from others? I think so, because all you are doing is describing how you will change things, and inviting those who agree with that strategy to support you.

I think God allows for legitimate diversity of opinion as to methodology and priority. For example, Christians can be found in virtually all political camps, so they may have very different proposals for solving the world’s problems. Trickle down economic policies are one way to address poverty, while income redistribution through the tax system is a very different way. Christians may legitimately disagree on these points. If opinion is divided, the local church or denomination may not be able to address the issue directly because their open membership covers a wide range of opinions. However, its members could consider the competing solutions offered by Christian agencies and each member choose the solution that seems best to them. One person may be big on mass evangelism events while another supports one-on-one approaches. The same goal, but different methods.

If giving is an act of worship, then it should be done intelligently. That is simply good stewardship. Providing information about your logic model shows respect for your donors and their stewardship of God’s resources. Rather than simplifying your giving opportunity, make it more complex by explaining the logic behind your ministry. Your donors will have greater confidence in your ministry, they will be better educated about the real issues, and well-equipped to tell others about your ministry.

Some people will decide your model is not their cup of tea, and some may not be interested in your logic model but will continue as transactional or habitual donors. But others will now be far more engaged with your ministry because of their deep understanding of it. They will become your missionary fundraisers as they share their enthusiasm for your ministry.

Here are statements that might be used when explaining your logic model:

  • Our mission is…
  • Our values include … which means that our programs are designed…
  • The root issues underlying our mission are… so we…
  • We assume that… and therefore we…
  • We believe that if we can…then the lasting impact will be…
  • We realize we are only part of the solution, so we…
  • Once our work with an individual or community is done, we believe they will…
  • To ensure sustainability, we…
  • We define success as…
  • The indicators of success are…
  • Change will occur because we…

Most ministries probably do not have an explicit logic model, but every ministry has an assumed one that can be uncovered by asking yourself “Why do we do it this way?” “Why do we believe this will work and not that?”

I’m putting this ‘out there’ as food for thought. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition, but it is a suggestion for how to communicate with a segment of the Christian public who want this sort of information. Jump in with your thoughts!

For more suggestions on this topic, I’ve written about the unhealthy aspects of competition between ministries and about logic models. I still intend to write about performance measurement, theory of change and reporting to donors. Time! Who’s ever got enough?

By the way, 8 days and I’m on my way.

Play

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *