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Inside Philanthropy

Faith-Based Fundraising: An Expert’s Advice to Religious Groups

Written By: Holly Hall

Andrei Korzhyts/shutterstock


If you write about charities for a living, it doesn’t take long to learn that some of the worst financial and other abuses occur in churches and other faith-based organizations. My own father-in-law quit his church when he found out the pastor had talked a mentally ill heiress into giving the pastor’s family hundreds of thousands of dollars, sparking an ugly lawsuit by the woman’s family.

One reason religious organizations—which include day-care facilities, schools, food pantries and other social-service organizations—run into trouble more often than other charities: Their lead organizations, churches, are not required to file Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service, which means that they can operate in relative secrecy. And congregations and other faith-based organizations sometimes put too much trust in senior officials, paving the way for embezzlement, other financial misdeeds, and sexual abuse, a problem that the Catholic church has struggled with for many years.

A new book, “Business of a Spiritual Matter: What All Leaders of Faith-Based Nonprofits Should Know” by M. Gasby Brown, a fundraising consultant based in Atlanta, addresses revenue-related problems for religious nonprofits.

Putting Faith in the Wrong Ideas

The daughter of a Baptist missionary reverend, Brown writes that she was motivated to produce the book after observing that faith-based charities, many of which do great work, too often base their operations on faulty and ineffective ideas about raising money.

“I have seen too many parachurch nonprofit organizations using the wrong model to run their operations,” she writes. “In many instances, because their mission and operation were tied to faith and churches, they have operated in a ‘let’s take a collection’ mentality, resulting in a ‘scarcity’ mindset rather than an ‘abundance’ fundraising approach.” Her book, she adds, “is meant to be a primer… to help you navigate the nonprofit sector while doing your important work.”

Starting with a short history of American faith-based organizations, Brown’s book discusses leadership with impact, creating or revising an organization’s mission, building a high-performing board, and avoiding common “fatal flaws” in doing so. The book also covers tools and strategies for “building efficiency into your organization” and “keeping your nonprofit status,” including when to hire a fundraising consultant, knowing the difference between lobbying and advocacy, and understanding what’s permissible under the laws that charities must follow.

In addition, Brown covers the basics of varying types of fundraising from the annual fund, planned giving, capital campaigns, and more.

Think Like a Gardner, Not a Hunter

“Fundraising is not hunting… it’s gardening,” Brown writes, meaning that raising money requires careful tending of an organization’s potential supporters rather than one-sided solicitations based on an organization’s needs rather than donors’ interests.

She explains how to start raising money by renting mailing lists and making sure the organization has good, up-to-date records on supporters. When approaching existing and potential supporters, she notes, the organization’s representatives should know how frequently that individual or family has been contacted; prospects will expect them to have that information. If they don’t, the organization will likely lose potential donors’ financial support.

Brown’s book contains useful information for religious organizations new to fundraising, including a list of 70 grant makers that give to religious causes with descriptions of their programmatic focus. Each of the book’s 15 chapters ends with questions for discussion and steps the reader can take immediately to improve his or her ability to bring in money.

“Bake sales, bazaars, and art festivals (also featuring baked goods), and candy and cookie-sale campaigns are too often the primary fundraising strategies,” Brown writes. “These methods will never be enough. It’s time to expand your fundraising thinking.”

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