I was sitting in church Saturday afternoon and realized that I’d never (that I can remember) received a thank you note or call for any contribution I’d ever made to any church I’ve attended.

Then I started thinking about other aspects of church giving and how rare it was that a pastor or church elder would report back on how contributed funds are used.  At the church where I’m currently a member, we’ll occasionally see some photos from a mission project, or have someone from a ministry we support visit to talk about their ministry and how our contributions allow them to exist.  But this doesn’t happen on a regular basis.

And then I thought about the fact that most contributions to churches don’t go to support overseas mission projects.  The funds primarily go to support the operations of the church.  They pay salaries, fund capital projects and meet the needs of churchgoers and the local community.  It is rare, if ever, that I’ve heard the church formally report back to supporters in any meaningful and intentional way, how their contributions are furthering the ministry locally.

Then it hit me like a ton of bricks.

Can you imagine how much money churches are leaving on the table every year because they don’t have an intentional process to strategically steward gifts and cultivate their donors

It must be millions.  Maybe tens of millions.

My gut tells me that churches fail in this area because they don’t view giving as voluntary philanthropy the way a nonprofit organization does.  Giving to a house of worship is viewed (I think primarily) as a religious obligation.  If scripture commands believers to give a tithe, then it’s essentially not a voluntary act.  It’s expected.  It’s required. 

But obligation or not, churchgoers are humans, and we humans crave appreciation.  It motivates us to repeat behaviors.  And that’s what pastors should want – members who are repeat givers, whether out of obligation or the voluntary desire to support a ministry.

Being curious by nature, I went to Google to see if I could find any articles on this topic.  Boy was I surprised. There are tons of articles about how churches can generate more revenue, but they all recommend the same steps.  Conduct a sermon series on giving.  Talk about giving regularly.  Send out a quarterly statement, and include in it verses about giving.  Remind attendees that God commands them to give.

These are all well and good (and likely necessary), but in my opinion, these speak only to the head . . . they fail to engage the heart, where generosity springs from

What was (in my opinion) conspicuously missing from the list of recommendations, was a donor cultivation process.  Not a single article by any church fundraising expert even touched on this topic. 

I’m a firm believer that people will continue to give to their place of worship out of a sense of obligation, if for no other reason (after all, we know that greater than 60% of all giving in the U.S. happens in houses of worship).  Well, most people, anyway.  But I wonder if they’ll maximize giving at church, or just give until they feel the obligation has been met?  And what about first time givers to a church? 

By not having a strategic plan to steward gifts and cultivate donors, do churches miss out on opportunities to engage supporters in greater ways?  Do they also run the risk of converting fewer one-time givers into long-term supporters by not having a formal second gift conversion process? 

So what do we do about this problem?

First, I suppose we have to agree that this is a problem.  I, for one, think it’s a problem of significant proportions for the church (and is only going to get larger as the lines between traditional church, para-church ministries and traditional nonprofits become more blurred in the future).  There are thousands of worthy nonprofit organizations across the globe that are fighting for the same charitable dollars that the church is fighting for. 

Assuming that we agree this is a problem worth fixing, here are a few ideas on how a church might go about fixing it:

Develop an ongoing thank you process

This is difficult to do with those supporters who make cash donations in the weekly offering plate, but easy to do for those who give by check or EFT.

When someone makes a contribution, send out an actual thank you letter.  Not just a form document that shows how much was given in a defined period of time.  An actual thank you letter that shares a story of how a life was changed, how a community was improved, how a person’s giving furthered the important work of the church. 

I don’t know that you need to do this for every contribution, but maybe it’s a monthly process.

This regular appreciation will reinforce for your supporters why it is they give, what their contributions are accomplishing, and how important it is that they continue to invest in your ministry.

This is also a great opportunity for you to introduce other valuable projects that need funding, over and above the regular ongoing needs of the church.  A simple insert with two or three other giving opportunities and a reply envelope included in the monthly receipt could yield significant additional income for your ministry.

On a regular basis (maybe quarterly, or annually, at least) have board members and key volunteers make thank you calls to supporters. 

In the nonprofit sector I’ve seen giving among donors who receive a thank you call increase significantly compared to those who do not receive a call.  Why not test it for your ministry as well? 

Celebrate giving as a community on a regular basis.  Make it a part of your regular worship program.

I’m not saying you have to talk about it every week, but I would think taking five minutes at least once a month to show video clips, photos, or some other tangible example of the ministry impact of church giving would go incredibly far in cultivating a true culture of philanthropy (and probably increasing giving) at your church.

Institute a new donor welcome program

Check out these new donor engagement recommendations from Ben Stroup over at Church Giving Matters.

I am by no means an expert on the topic of church giving.  These are just my observations and thoughts on the subject.  Do you have other ideas, thoughts or recommendations on this topic?