Trust and Funding
More and more senior executives at Christian nonprofits today find themselves staring at a gradually diminishing pool of individual donor funding. As giving levels recede so does the ability to fund the facilities and program growth outlined in the organization’s vision for the future.
Among the challenges: How do we align our faith-based fundraising orientation with a world that’s become increasingly secular and more complex? With that question comes a host of other issues, including strategy, message, audience, and the necessary expertise needed for successful execution.
How is the sector forming the strategic partnerships and finding the resources needed to respond? In late 2018 faith-first fundraising agency Brewer Direct set out to find the answers, commissioning respected research firm Analytical Ones for a nationwide study. The initiative, which included both qualitative and quantitative research, probed chief executives and senior fundraising professionals at more than 50 Christian charities nationwide on how their organizations are connecting with donors to release their collective generosity.
This article summarizes those findings, highlighting new and emerging trends...
This article summarizes those findings, highlighting new and emerging trends in how leaders are utilizing outside expertise to increase giving flows. The insights and data points that follow are being shared to help boards and executive leadership understand some of the key underlying issues that influence fundraising success today.
Getting Behind the Development Curtain
Two broad yet highly correlated outcomes emerged from our study: concerns about trust and funding. These issues were not restricted to external partnerships, but also the collaboration inside the organization.
Development executives expressed anxiety about strategic disconnects between senior leadership and those operating on the front lines of fundraising. Misalignment between goals, expectations and resources has not only impeded the effectiveness of donor outreach, but also creating varying degrees of mistrust and misunderstanding between stakeholders. Among the issues keeping fundraisers up at night:
- “The biggest problem - and I would bet this is ten out of ten - is that executive leadership in nonprofits do not understand fundraising. You end up with a board of directors pressing the executive team about more revenue or doing more things and it’s a three-way triangle where the board blames the executive team, the executive team blames the development team and then the development people are sort of odd man out… you end up with a not very effective structure.”
- “Lack of integration between channels and competing messages/offers from various sub-ministries.”
The Christian Conundrum
Externally, building trust with donors and organizations in the secular world remains a significant challenge for faith-based fundraisers. Many have resigned themselves to low success rates and have redoubled their efforts to reach more believers. Others press on and are encouraged by the progress being made in building productive and mutually beneficial partnerships. Simply put, perspectives from development leaders were as diverse as the nonprofits themselves.
- “The biggest challenge is that we ARE a faith based organization. This makes many organizations wary of partnering with us at first glance. But, that’s a nationwide epidemic. No company wants to brand themselves as Christian in this society unless they have to.”
- “Many foundations and large corporate donors have a blanket policy of not giving to ‘religious or faith based organizations.’”
- “By receiving (government) funding we would have to comply with multi-level state regulations. That doesn’t apply to JUST faith-based organizations, but compliance would eliminate a lot of what sets us apart and we refuse to stoop to that level just to receive dollars.”
- “Some organizations are wary to partner with us once they realize that our non-profit is faith-based. However we’ve been able to overcome that more easily as of late in some regard.”
Building the Brand
Many of those with whom we surveyed see more effective branding as a strategic imperative, and are seeking creative ideas and top-flight execution from their agency partners. The goal: Tell the stories of their social impact in a more powerful, compelling manner. Expertise in direct response fundraising is still highly valued, but Christian leaders view that strategy as more transactional in comparison to the reputational value of branding. The intent is clear:
- “Helping people know who we are as an organization.”
- “Engaging with the community on a personal level. Most of the community hears about us for the first time through word of mouth, or from other parents.”
The Role of Agency Partners
Given that many development departments maintain some level of internal resources to support donor outreach, researchers wanted to learn what agency expertise and services were of most value to nonprofits. The areas they cited, in terms of willingness to purchase, were (in ranked order): 1) website, 2) brand marketing, 3) direct mail, and 4) copy writing.
Why they prioritized those services may depend upon how development executives evaluated their charity’s internal capabilities. Between 18% to 23% of those surveyed rated in-house competency in those areas as poor, with copywriting and direct mail topping the list. That was followed by brand marketing and website development. Other areas of need included planned giving, data analysis and major gifts. Internal strengths included special events, with 45% of executives rating their in-house capabilities as excellent, leading social media (35%) and public relations (34%).
The quotes below offer additional insight into how some faith-based fundraisers look at the “in-house vs. outsource” issue:
- “I have seen other (organizations) take direct mail in house. We could do that, but we don’t want to do that. We can also hire a digital expert in house. But, I like the learnings that agencies have from other (organizations). (Our market) is unique. It’s not like (others). But, there are some parallels that can be learned. What we hire for we understand that we cannot do.”
- “We’re looking for a strategic partner to bring a lot of knowledge and expertise - not just for (our organization) - but across the sector and sometimes in the for-profit sector as well. Someone who can see things from the perspective of that outside expertise and offer their ability to do some assessment and offer recommendations for how we can strengthen what we do.”
Looking at the value proposition of a good fundraising partner in quantitative terms, the study also revealed the following:
- 29 of 50 participants wanted fundraising partners who share their Christian values
- 33 of 50 wanted an agency partner to push back and provide direction.
- 34 of 50 wanted a single, comprehensive fundraising service.
Putting It into Context
This study reflects responses from approximately 50 leaders. As such, the results are not generalizable to a wider population, but instead create a platform for further inquiry.
As a leader of a faith-first agency, I have a special appreciation for the challenges fundraisers inside Christian nonprofits face. The secular world in some ways is becoming more antagonistic to our shared mission of spreading the Lord’s message. Even the faith-based community itself struggles with finding consensus on issues. Donors are certainly not immune to that discord.
It’s really about “releasing generosity.”
My professional life has been invested in understanding what makes people step up to support those who help people with unmet needs. I’ve discovered through that journey that our work is more than just doing “fundraising.” It’s really about “releasing generosity.” Operating with that mindset produces a spirit of abundance that opens the floodgates of support and enables us to maximize God’s work in the world.
It’s my hope that you overcome your own unique challenges… and build relationships that will help you multiply your support base. My fervent prayer is that you communicate more powerfully and release generosity with those who embrace your own unique vision to help a hurting world.
Randy Brewer is founder, president and CEO of Brewer Direct, a faith-first nonprofit fundraising agency that serves Christian charities globally. Author of the inspirational book Finding My Voice (Big Snowy Media, 2017), Randy also serves as vice chairman for African Enterprise USA and is an active member of International Full Gospel Fellowship. He can be reached at RBrewer@BrewerDirect.com.