Keeping Fundraising Strong in a Weakened Economy

It's been the big question behind the door: Would September 11 terrorism and economic downturn hurt contributions to congregations during 2001? Would congregants who gave generously to the Red Cross give less to their churches? Would the economic downturn in itself or the fear of future terrorism be enough to dry up giving?

And what steps can we take to strengthen our fundraising to meet this challenge?

Some of our congregations do report slightly reduced giving this past fall. Others experienced no change. In November, Warren Mathews, finance committee chair at the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Community Church of Santa Monica, CA (418 members), reported "moderate reductions in annual campaign pledging and some modifications downward in capital pledges already made."

"Our collections are definitely down by 10 percent," said Janet Tharp, executive director at First Unitarian, Dallas (724). "Most of it seems to be because of nervousness about the future. There are also some people who have lost their jobs and are unable to fulfill pledges."

However, according to Tharp, Dallas's annual canvass, conducted in September and October, was "doing pretty well." The congregation, whose fiscal year ends in December, asked for an additional $100 contribution per member to cover budget shortfalls. A special auction in February will serve the same purpose.

Sue Lodgen, Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Annual Program Fund chair for the Central Midwest District, said her contact with congregations through mid-November found pledges and canvasses were generally on track. West Shore UU Church in Cleveland, OH (621), reported no noticeable change this fall.

A capital campaign that was set to start this fall at a midsize Iowa congregation was postponed for a year when a feasibility study revealed that members had been significantly affected by the weakening economy, said Wayne Clark, director of UUA congregational fundraising services. Another seven or eight capital campaigns are proceeding on schedule, he said.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy, a journal for nonprofit fundraising organizations, reported in October that 73 percent of those who made charitable gifts to agencies such as the Red Cross in response to the September 11 attacks say they will continue to give as much or more than they usually give to other charities. Twenty-six percent of September 11 donors said they intend not to give as much. The figures came from a survey of 1,009 American adults in early October for Independent Sector, a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of more than seven hundred  charitable groups.

The economy was viewed as a greater threat to charitable giving than terrorism. About 20 percent of those surveyed said they would either reduce or eliminate charitable giving if the economy worsened.

Clark said most financial analysts expect the current economic downturn to last into the second quarter of 2002. "Most analysts believe, and I strongly agree, that the United States economy will then experience a healthy rebound," he said.

Clark believes congregants will continue to give, especially if they are approached in a compelling manner. "We need only to look at the millions and millions of dollars raised since September 11 in support of relief efforts in New York and Washington to remind ourselves that it's often not a question of financial ability as much as it is a question of willingness to share those financial resources.

"I am convinced that our congregations can still reach their fundraising goals as long as they can make a passionate case for using the money. In the eighteen years that the Office of Congregational Fundraising Services has consulted with our congregations, we have experienced several other economic downturns. In each case, we have found that a fundraising effort can succeed if a compelling case can be made to justify the raising of money."

Clark's recommendations:

  • Make sure there's a good match between the services you're providing and parishioners' needs. It's also a good time to find ways to help people connect to the congregation. An example is the movement in UU congregations toward small group ministries. "Small groups help connect people to their congregation at a personal level and may make them feel better about their church," Clark observes.
  • Don't assume someone cannot give only because they're facing financial difficulty. "We must believe that potential donors deserve the opportunity to make a financial contribution to their congregation. We do them a disservice if we don't ask them."
  • For those who have been significantly hurt by the economy and cannot give as much as they would like, get their permission to come back to them in six months (or a year if it's a capital campaign). "We have to be sensitive to them. But it doesn't mean we don't ask."
  • It's not a question of using a "magic" technique this year, says Clark. "This is not about magic bullets. It's about making a strong case for the money." For instance, say, "When we reach our annual goal what we will do is be a more visible liberal religious voice because we will do...and then tell them just what you will do. Tell them what the vision of the church is."

Clark encourages canvassers to share a personal story about why they love their church or fellowship. "I ask them to recall an especially memorable or significant or spiritual experience they've had in the congregation. I ask them to complete the sentence: "I remember the time when... "

He adds, "It's not the canvassers who are the smoothest who are the most effective. It's the ones who are willing to tell those personal stories."


Fundraising questions may be addressed to the director of UUA congregational fundraising services: P.O. Box 378, Cumberland, ME 04021; (207) 829-4550.

About the Author

  • 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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