Jason Coker

Stop Asking People to Give Your Church Money

I had lunch with a friend today

I’ve known Geoff for a few years now. He runs Flourish San Diego, where they work with churches to help them think in more creative ways about their mission and he always makes me think. One of the things we discussed was how his organization emphasizes the discovery and activation of a person’s vocation within the context of their church involvement.

I think this is brilliant. It reminded me that one of the biggest mistakes nonprofits and churches sometimes make is to focus on asking people for money.

The trouble is, for a while at least, this can appear to work well! The psychology of sales and fundraising are well known, and can be effective in the short-term when we learn to push people’s buttons and pull their triggers.

But when we treat people like the most important thing they have to give is their money, we are essentially exploiting them as objects to be used on our behalf. We de-humanize people when we will say or do nearly anything just to get them to write a check. And eventually, because of that, we will lose them. This, by the way, is a sure-fire sign that we have slipped into the trap of working to preserve the institution rather than advance the mission (tip-of-the-hat to Geoff for reminding me of this). Why? Because institutions are built by resources, but a mission is advanced by people.

Most of us know this intuitively

Most of us find selling and fundraising in this way to be highly distasteful. We resist it because we know how gross it makes us feel when someone treats us this way. As pastors who are trained to be sensitive to a person’s spiritual well-being, we’re even more repulsed by the practice.

And we should be.

The problem is, when faced with the discomfort of asking for money, we tend to shrink back and ask for less (or, we simply don’t ask at all), when what we should be doing is exactly the opposite. We should be asking for far more.

Now, I don’t mean we should ask for more money or even more time. I’m not suggesting we travel down the well-worn path of over-busying and overwhelming people until they eventually burn out. That’s just another, all-too-familiar way of exploiting people. The solution to exploiting people is obviously not to exploit them more (nor, less obviously, is it merely to exploit them less). Rather, the solution is to learn to truly see and relate to people as whole persons who have more to give than merely money.

Every one of us has a vocation

We all have an innate, whole-hearted purpose or calling in life for which we are gifted and equipped, more or less, depending on how much we have grown and developed. But many people (maybe most) haven’t discovered it yet, and this is one reason why many of us are so spiritually broken – because we haven’t yet figured out what we should be sacrificing our lives for.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper worship.

~Romans 12:1

People are looking for where their lives fit, and once they find it, they’ll usually give their whole hearts to it. This is their spiritual vocation. You do them and your mission a disservice when you simply ask for their money. One key to forming a healthy church or nonprofit is to learn to discover and empower the whole-hearted vocations of those who are genuinely called to work alongside you in a common mission. That is what true organizational development is about, because in a mission-driven organization like a church, it develops more than the organization; it develops people, it develops the community, it develops the world.

In the world of nonprofit leadership, this kind of holistic, person-centered approach is often referred to as humanizing the organization – and it applies to more than just fundraising or fund development. It is the intentional counter-measure of the common and de-humanizing modern management paradigm which sees the organization as a machine and the people in it as the cogs that keep it running.

How does this relate to giving money?

One of the most important things you can do to develop your church or nonprofit is to stop asking for people to give their money and start asking them to give their hearts. In other words, genuinely treat them as persons who are critically important to the mission. Because they are.

Of course, this is a process, and usually a long one because it is relational. It starts with caring enough to pay attention and listen. It means discovering people’s hearts and being honest about whether their vocation really does align with yours. It also requires making space for people to engage to whatever extent they are able and willing; allowing them to ask difficult questions, make suggestions, participate in decisions, offer a critique, commit mistakes, achieve successes, enjoy a little credit, and so on.

Giving won’t run that deep for everyone – in fact, it won’t run that deep for hardly anyone – and that’s good and right for all kinds of reasons. but everybody does have something to give, and having permission to give whatever they have, coupled with access to whole-heartededly participate in your mission through a sense of their deeply personal calling, will make a profound impact for the better on everyone who comes into contact with your organization.

Here’s the shift I want us to grasp

In this way, asking for support from someone who is whole-heartedly aligned and invested is actually an expression of deep care for them as a person. Yes, even asking for money, when it’s appropriate. There is nothing quite so life-giving as living into the vocation of your gifts and passion. By appropriately asking for the gift of a person’s heart in all if its manifestations, and by creating a meaningful way for them to give it, you are offering them a powerful gift as well. The gift of being truly human.

For obvious reasons, no organizations on the planet should be better at this than communities of faith.

There are all kinds of effective ways to do this. Ways to lead and govern well, ways to ask well, and ways to engage people as whole persons. That’s why I offer courses and training here (shameless plug). All of that can be learned.

But how does this make us more financially sustainable? Well, I hope its obvious by now that if a person happens to have a great deal of disposable money, they’re much more likely to give some of it – possibly a great deal of it – to the organizations that have empowered their whole-hearted passions in life. But if you’re singularly focused on their money all the time, you’ll miss the treasure they have to offer every time.



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