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10 Tips for Creating a Culture of Generosity

Welcome to year three of the recession. The church has adapted to this restricted giving environment. The new normal has set in. The new normal may be short lived, however.

Making the turn into 2011, churches could be faced with even greater financial challenges. The political landscape shakes. Inflation probably looms. Many church staff teams have had no salary increase for a couple of years. Increased medical costs plague church leadership teams wrestling with HR issues. Serving the poor and the hurting has stretched our available dollars.

None of these challenges trumps our God’s care and power to overcome any obstacle. Because of who God is, leaders courageously deal with whatever fiscal roller coaster we ride.

Lack of fear, however, does not mean allowing generosity and stewardship practices to drift along. Churches have mastered the art of allowing the path of least resistance to rule their generosity culture. The church that is intentional in crafting a generosity culture will have significant resources in meeting the needs of the world.

How might you craft a different reality about your giving in 2011?

Use these ten issues to kick-start your brain and invite your people to eagerly engage in your church vision. Their deeper engagement leads to radical generosity.

1. Leaders eliminate the unnecessary to focus on the necessary

Reduced income forces leaders to make decisions to purge activity that fails to contribute to the core mission. Leaders have learned in the tutorial of the recession that much of what a church does doesn’t lead to high impact.

Leaders must change how they lead to accelerate a generosity culture. Standard church stewardship practices have become a silo that must be destroyed in order to rouse the heart of the donor to become a fiercely committed giver. It takes much more than an annual series on stewardship or finely tuned church management techniques. Better for a pastor to preach less and lead more in generosity. Better to be effective in integrating all generosity channels in your church than to be efficient in cranking out standard church communication that most donors interpret as “blah-blah-blah.”

What would happen if leaders destroyed the stewardship silo and aligned spiritual engagement, the church mission, and the heart of the donors?

2. Increased mission competition creates more choices for your donors

Economic pressure has forced more ministries to behave aggressively. They are skilled in telling their story and engaging the heart of the donor, but your church has the home field advantage in relationship with your donors.

An e-mail just arrived from a para-church group where Lisa and I give. The message was compelling with fascinating stories of where our investment changed lives. I know more about that mission in a sixty-second read than most of your donors know about your church.

Giving is not a money problem. The top eleven Christian organizations received $5.3 billion in 2009. These groups and hundreds of others compete for the passion and attention of your donors. Churches that focus on what is mission critical and engage their donors in the battle will be abundantly funded. My pastor says that anything that is great has a cost to it. People are drawn to great things and will give.

3. Authentic connection points and the growth of social media

Most people no longer want to passively listen to broadcast TV-style news. They increasingly want to engage, speak into, share, and be in control of how they interact with information and relationships. Facebook exceeds 500 million users. Twitter will probably exceed 200 million users by year-end with some 65 million tweets daily. Check a news Web site, and you will find an on-line poll or video prompt.

As I work with churches in a generosity and communication audit, I almost always find a passive communication process with donors. Most e-mail traffic, newsletters, and social networking are a rehash of the weekly bulletin. Frequently, the communication is redundant, boring, and sending a message to the donors that the interaction with the church is not of high value. Most churches talk to their donors about the things the church is interested in and not what interests the donor. I am not advocating theological compromise to fund ministry. Our cultural connecting points and donor thinking are changing radically, and we must understand how to skillfully craft our message.

Your donors are people of dreams and hopes who want to engage in things that last. Invite them to the party of a lifetime. Each communication touch should be telling your donor something of great, missional importance, not merely yet another prompt to attend a church program. Move from a tradition of maintenance to a culture of high impact.

4. Most donors, especially higher capacity donors, are very cautious

There is much more risk in giving in the current environment, especially for project giving or capital campaigns. The classic campaign model assumed donors could make pledges based on predictable patterns of income growth and job security. Higher capacity donors who gave from assets had a reasonable confidence that those assets would be replaced rather quickly. Giving from assets now probably means that there is little or no chance of that asset being replaced.

Donors will still give, but they are more demanding in vetting projects. It takes much more compelling conversations and emotional connections to move donors, especially higher capacity donors, off the sidelines into the game. Giving from cash flow remains the core source of funds. As people get paid, they are usually comfortable to give from that paycheck.

Most of my clients engaged in campaign giving opt for shorter campaign-giving seasons rather than the more traditional three years. We are crafting more creative options to get them to where they need to be in the project sooner, taking advantage of the current giving trends.

5. Intentional conversation with your donors

Apart from relocating, donors will stop giving to your church for one of six reasons:

  1. A downward change in personal income.
  2. Disagreement about something the church did which eroded trust.
  3. Belief in a rumor, unfounded news, or wrong information about something in the church.
  4. They believe they found a better place for their giving that is more effective.
  5. Perceived lack of gratitude for their giving.
  6. Lack of understanding of how their spiritual development is inextricably linked to their theology and practice of giving.

The last five are within the church’s ability to control. Effective, pro-active, frequent communication will build trust in leadership and prompt eager giving. Much of my work now centers in retooling the church communication, leading to increased giving.

6. Focus on engaging new donors

It is very common for 50% or more of your regular attendees to give nothing. Can we give ourselves permission to talk about giving when people enter our church life to reduce this number? Curiosity about faith and finances is high given the financial pressures. Consider placing new, practical emphasis in the new member process to equip in how to give. One of our clients decreased the predictable content on stewardship, substituting a very practical worksheet on making a decision to give.

Consider a brief, handwritten thank you note to each person when they give their first gift. Gratitude is deeply appreciated and often leads to a second gift and then to recurring gifts.

7. Increase donor trust in financial integrity and uses of funds

Donors give to the degree that they trust leadership. Churches that have a trust gap face an uphill battle to a quick fix in their giving. Donors want to know that their funds are being used for great impact. Help them to know that your church leadership has high integrity and accountability. Funds are spent shrewdly, wisely, and in alignment with the mission.

Assigning a scarce amount of funds to mission critical areas calls for eliminating more traditional cost areas. An emerging trend is to outsource functions to groups that bring greater skill and expertise at a reduced cost. Several reputable firms now serve churches in accounting, executive assistance, staff recruiting, and other areas that reduce costs and elevate the quality of the task.

8. Be intentional to equip your church in a practice of specific actions

The standard church default assumes that people understand the mechanics of giving. The entire experience can be a mystery and filled with the unknown. We tend to perpetuate this culture by being ambiguous in how we equip people in the art of giving. Rather than silence or a perfunctory fifteen-second prompt before offering, how can you leverage the moments of the offering to engage the heart of the donor? We have the home field advantage of having personal contact with our donors up to 52 times per year.

Consider ways to prompt people into a practice of specific actions. Automatic bill pay is a gift to the church. Can we celebrate and tell the story of people giving to the poor, their neighbors? Equipping–rather than assumption–will generate more consistent giving.

9. Be aware that giving mechanisms are changing quickly

Much like when we moved from cash to giving by check, our society is moving into different giving mechanisms. Automatic bill pay is the norm. What if people felt permission to give to the church that way? We will need to modify how we worship in giving to accommodate the changes, but we cannot ignore the shifts.

Most church donors are Baby-boomers who are technologically aware, but are comfortable with standard church giving patterns. How do we capture the practices of younger donors to use their technological preferences to give to your church?

10. Relentlessly pursue helping people get out of debt

People cannot give what they do not have. Debt strangles the life from people and creates a barrier in doing what they want to do: give. Offer classes. Tell stories. Make being debt free the norm for your church. Lisa and I use the envelope system and pay cash for most expenses. The practice has been one of the most freeing changes in our marriage and financial battles.

Your church mission is of great importance. The big problem of securing financial resources can be solved. Blowing up the default stewardship silo will create sustainable change.

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