No Secrets or Magic to Good Congregational Fundraising

By Donald E. Skinner

Dr. Wayne Clark, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UU's) Congregational Stewardship Network director, gets the question all the time: “What’s the one thing we can do to make our stewardship campaign successful? What’s the secret?”

And his answer is always the same. “There is no secret or magic formula.” Instead, he says, “It’s all about what you’re selling. You have to make a clear and compelling case to the congregation as to why you are asking for the money. What difference will people’s money make? What can we do as a congregation that we can’t do without more money?

“Maybe you want to move the director of religious education from half to fulltime. Tell people what the RE program could accomplish if that happened. It’s not the actual move that’s the key, it’s ‘How will we be better able to fulfill our ministry with this money?’”

The 185-member Woodinville Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church in Woodinville, WA, has taken that message to heart. For the past five years each annual stewardship campaign has raised more than the previous year. This past spring the congregation raised $293,000, about $37,000 more than the previous year. The Rev. Lois Van Leer began as a part-time consulting minister in 2010 and this year became the congregation’s fulltime minister.

For the last two years the average pledge at Woodinville, an affluent suburb of Seattle, was more than $2,000. In recent years the median pledge has moved from $1,200 to $1,500. Woodinville’s stewardship efforts get a boost from the fact that Aggie Sweeney is a longtime leader of the stewardship committee. Sweeney, until recently a UUA stewardship consultant, has been on the committee for a decade and a member of the congregation for 21 years, a year shy of the congregation’s entire life span.

Over that time she’s learned a few things about stewardship. Among them: “We try to do a good job on educating everyone on what it takes to run the church financially and we try to build a strong sense of ownership. Our motto might be, ‘If it’s to be, it’s up to me.’ We try to be clear every year as to what difference giving makes.”

The mechanics of a stewardship campaign are as important as the message, she added. “What works best here is a short drive but to be well-prepared going into it. We kicked off the drive this past spring with a well-attended potluck dinner with music. We made sure everyone felt invited. The event gave us a chance to talk about the drive and the meaning of the church. About two-thirds of all adult members attended.”

Before the dinner a group of lead givers were given the opportunity to pledge early so that the campaign was comfortably underway when others were asked to contribute. Many filled out cards at the stewardship dinner. Those that did not were contacted by phone or in person.

Congregations often let their campaigns drag out too long, Sweeney believes. “Maybe they weren’t organized at the beginning. One congregation had a two-month drive, but many people waited until the absolutely last minute to pledge. If it had been one month they would have raised just as much.”

People who feel good about their congregations give more, she believes. For that reason, small groups are important in making people feel connected, as is a caring committee that is well-connected in the congregation. “The culture of the church is important. Ours feels joyful. Being there feels good. It feels like a place that’s a vital part of people’s lives. “

A minister can play a key role, she adds, by presenting stewardship as a spiritual practice. The minister should not lead a drive however. “The congregation needs to own that as its responsibility. A minister can, however, help recruit volunteers and ask for some of the individual gifts.”

As a stewardship consultant Sweeney has visited many congregations and she knows what can go wrong. “What I see more often than I like is a lack of reaching out to every member and friend in a personal way. And occasionally I’ll pick up an attitude among leaders that people should give more, rather than approaching stewardship as a joyful opportunity.”

It’s important, she notes, to educate people who may not have had experience with supporting a church community. Woodinville uses the UUA’s Suggested Fair Share Giving Guide to show people recommended levels of giving.

At the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee, WI, the stewardship committee plans almost year-round for the annual campaign, says Kathy Porter, director of Membership and Development. At this urban congregation of 800 adult members the median pledge is $700.

The campaign is generally in February and runs about a month, although by the time the last pledgers are tracked down it’s April or May. The committee begins meeting again in the fall, and then around November or December it meets with the board and other leaders. “We talk about what we’re trying to do in the next year,” Porter says. Newsletter announcements and stewardship moments from the pulpit prepare the congregation for the start of a new campaign.

In recent years the congregation has been challenged to pay for all the staff needed for a growing congregation. This past year it called in a consultant, the Rev. Dan Hotchkiss, a senior consultant for the Alban Institute, who helped the congregation plan for a stewardship drive that would keep the congregation from having to dip into reserves.

Church leaders and Hotchkiss created “giving pyramids” that encouraged people to think about moving into higher categories of giving. In the 2011–12 campaign, three households pledged $10,000 or more, 17 pledged from $5,000 to $9,999, 45 gave $2,500 to $4,999 and 428 pledged less than $2,500.

This spring, in the 2012–13 campaign, there were seven households in the top category, 22 pledges from $5,000 to $9,999, 54 from $2,500 to $4,999, 143 of $1,000 to $2,499 and 337 under $1,000. The goal by 2016–17 is to have ten households in the top category. Said Porter, “For our most recent drive we wanted to point to something new. Our focus became the newness in each year—the next group of eighth graders taking Our Whole Lives, the new sermons we would hear and music we would experience.”

It worked. The campaign last spring raised around $735,000, compared to $650,000 the previous year. “We worked particularly hard,” said Porter. “Dan helped us frame the talk about the need to increase. There were members who spoke deeply, from the heart about what this church meant to them. People stepped up in a huge way.”

She added, “During the campaign we talked about our whole financial situation and what it took to provide all of the programming.” Because many people had said they did not want to be canvassed at fellowship events, they weren’t. “The evening became a celebration of who we are rather than why we needed a pledge increase.” Nor were there in-home visits. Most of the contacts were made by phone.

Porter said, “We know that face-to-face is more effective, but we have more and more people who don’t want to be on either end of that.”

She said new people are introduced to stewardship in FUS’s Journey to Membership classes. “We tell them what stewardship is—that it includes volunteering time as well as money—and what it takes to run a church like this. I share my personal pledging story and walk them through the mechanics. We initially encourage them to give 3 to 5 percent of income. We find that many people know very little about giving. I remember back 18 years when my husband and I joined. We gave what I came to realize later was a pretty pathetic pledge because we didn’t know what to give. We gradually increased it to about 6 percent of our income.”

A big part of developing a climate of effective stewardship, she noted, is creating and sustaining a church home that people feel good about and that nurtures them. That includes worship, programming, religious education, and small groups. “People come to church for so many different reasons.”

Clark, with the UUA, notes, “Congregations need to ask themselves, ‘Who are we as a congregation?’ ‘What do we believe in?’ ‘What would we miss if this church was not here?’ Answers to these questions can help a congregation focus on the necessary financial resources to fund that vision.

“Fundraising really isn’t about the money,” he says. “The money is just a means to an end. Still, the technical aspects of raising money are important. You want to have as many stewardship conversations as you can. In addition, have a good brochure and recruit good people to work with you.”

He recommends that a congregation conduct stewardship conversations at least every third or fourth year. “In the other years you can do a Miracle Sunday or neighborhood meetings where you gather a group of people. By far the best method is the in-person ask. Then Miracle Sunday. Then by phone. Doing a campaign by email or direct mail are the worst ways.”

There are four parts to a stewardship visit, he suggests. “Your story, their story, the Ask, and the Thank you. Your job as a steward is to share what you love about the congregation, then hear their story, then ask for a pledge. At that point it’s up to the other person and however they respond you should not feel guilty. You’ve done your part.”

He says congregations commonly make the mistake of not planning ahead, thus they do a campaign without proper preparation. And many don’t use the UUA’s Suggested Fair Share Giving Guide. “Some will say it starts at too high a level. I would remind them it’s a suggested guide. Start wherever you can. The bottom line is if you love your congregation, it’s important to remember that it takes money to get some things accomplished.”


Clark and a corps of nine congregational stewardship consultants offer consulting services to congregations on annual and capital campaigns, strategic planning, financial feasibility studies, and planned giving programs. A loan program assists with site and building acquisition, first-home grants, and green construction awards. See the Congregational Stewardship and Fundraising Resources webpage for more information, where you can also find links to a fundraising handbook, Beyond Fundraising: A Complete Guide to Congregational Stewardship, and a Facebook Stewardship Lab, where people may talk with others who are involved in stewardship.

A UUA-sponsored email list, UU-Money, is another place where congregational leaders can gather to discuss stewardship issues.

About the Author

Donald E. Skinner

Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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