Keep Small Fundraisers Special and Out of the Operating Fund

We all know the purpose of the annual canvass is to fund the operating budget, and that if we do it right, we're set for another year. But the reality is that the canvass sometimes falls short. Consequently many congregations rely on smaller fundraisers to fill the hole. We also know these other fundraisers might be more fun—and raise more money—if we didn't have to use them as budget fillers. How can we support the operating fund entirely (or almost entirely) with the annual canvass?

The Unitarian Universalist (UU) Metro Atlanta North Congregation, Roswell, GA (156 members), bites the bullet. Its operating budget is based solely on the amount raised in its annual canvass. If the money doesn't come in, the budget gets cut. Last year the canvass came up a little short. Rather than do a special fundraiser, members cut the cleaning service and took turns cleaning the building.

The congregation raised $18,500 in the recent past with a chili cookoff, rummage sale, and art auction and gave the money to Habitat for Humanity, a special building fund, and to upgrade playground equipment. There was no thought of using the funds to fill holes in the budget, says Rev. Greg Ward.

"This gives a lot more energy to the fundraiser and increases volunteer support. If the money were to simply go to operational expenses, I'm not sure the motivation would be behind it."

There's no magic solution to keeping special fundraisers out of the operating fund. It helps to have a strong annual canvass and inspired members. Metro Atlanta North has a canvass committee that meets year-round. Money is discussed in terms of how it can help the congregation fulfill its vision of itself. Having committed members also helps. Says Ward, "As people's social and spiritual investment increases, their financial investment almost always follows."

Wayne Clark, the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA's) director of congregational fundraising services, encourages congregations to raise nearly all of their operating funds with the annual canvass. Typically, he says, many congregations do use smaller fundraisers to repair deficits.

Sometimes that can't be helped, but smaller fundraisers are most useful, and more fun, he believes, when their proceeds can go to an exciting special project. At some point small fundraisers probably diminish a congregation's capacity to raise funds through the canvass, he says. "Some can be time- and energy-consuming and not cost-effective. But they still have tremendous value if used for non-operating budget purposes and to build community."

First Unitarian Church, South Bend, IN (102), needing to upgrade its property or move, adopted an operating budget that removed all fundraiser money. The $10,000 from fundraisers now goes into a capital improvement fund. "We believe it's more responsible to meet our operating expenses without dependence on the fundraisers," says President Elizabeth Scarborough.

At the First Unitarian Fellowship of Carbondale, IL (134), it's understood that the operating budget is funded entirely from the annual canvass, says President Ann Ruger. "We make clear the financial expectations of members to support the congregation."

She says interest is generated in the annual canvass by lifting up special programs that the money makes possible. "This year we're hoping to add a music director to strengthen our program," Ruger says. "We've talked with the congregation about all the benefits that would come with this new position."

The congregation's only other recent fundraisers have been for nonchurch projects. Ruger says, "I think that people may dig more deeply during the annual canvass because they don't have to worry about additional requests later in the year."

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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