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Fundraising and Theology: Does the End Justify the Means?
Non-Christians get an impression of what Christians believe and value through our fundraising activities. What does our fundraising tell them about us?

Has a Christian institution—school, church, service agency, relief and development group, mission organization—asked you for money lately? It's likely that most readers have received letters requesting donations, either in the mail or as magazine inserts, not to mention TV commercials and programs devoted to specific causes. Canvassers, both volunteers and paid workers, knock on our doors. Telemarketers phone us at home. Pardon the pun, but fundraising has become a "growth industry."

I think an outsider could be easily convinced that God…

Fundraising is a very public face of Christianity. That statement might make us squirm in our pews, but raising money is one of the endeavours through which non-Christians are most likely to get an impression of what Christians believe and value.

So what does Christian fundraising say about what Christians believe? For starters, I think an outsider could be easily convinced that God is broke! Money seems perennially tight, except in response to rare high-profile disasters like the Asian tsunami. It appears that for many Christian organizations there is never enough money to meet the budget, launch a new program or respond to an urgent need. Many, but not all, of our fundraising letters perpetuate a "scarcity model"; there are never enough resources to respond to the needs.

On an individual level and, dare I say it, maybe even on a congregational level, I think many Christians also feel there is never enough, that we need to keep more money for ourselves.

Organizations write increasingly desperate letters in an effort to gain a response. I worry when an appeal says, "You can save a life." That's a very strong claim. It implies by extension that withholding funds is an exercise of power that denies life. Maybe God can use the money to help the organization help someone, but I am troubled by ascribing lifesaving power to money.

This neediness perpetuates a vicious cycle. Donors begin to wonder if their last gift made any difference: Is there no hope? Why bother giving if the situation never improves? Conversely, if the situation sounds too hopeful, donors might feel their help is no longer required.

We are in danger of confusing wealth with powers traditionally reserved for God. Do we give our money to whichever organization sounds the most desperate? Is need the only criteria for giving? As long as donating money is primarily an emotional response, fundraising letters will dance awkwardly between portraits of desperate need and hopeful progress.

Fundraisers also talk about a phenomenon known as "donor fatigue," in which donors becomes tired of repeated requests for money and stop giving to a charity. As a result of donor fatigue and a host of other factors, many charities are continually searching for new donors.

It's important to know that, as a general rule, it's not a donor's first gift that makes money for a charity. Acquisitions—acquiring new donors—are often a "loss leader," as the return for the charity is less than the investment in fundraising costs. The money usually comes in the subsequent gifts received after a donor comes on board.

Many one-time donors give to resolve the cognitive dissonance created by troubling images of suffering. For instance, many Canadians responded to the December 26, 2004 tsunami devastation seen on TV. How can some people suffer so greatly while I am healthy and well? Giving money helps us resolve the tension between our situation and what we see happening to other people elsewhere. This behaviour is commendable, but often not sustainable. Will we still give when the TV is no longer covering the story?

So don't give to a new charity if you only plan on giving once! Determine if this is a cause you would like to support in the long-term, instead of merely responding to a strong emotional appeal out of guilt or fear.

Let's return to our earlier question of what our fundraising practices reveal about Christian beliefs. I examined numerous fundraising letters for a theology paper I wrote. Too often, Christian fundraising letters imply that the organization will do whatever it takes to get more money; fundraising becomes a necessary evil which funds the real ministry.

I think that fundraising is a ministry, and one that needs more thoughtful reflection in Christian circles. We need to think about how and why we give money. I believe that the relationship between donors and Christian organizations needs to be about more than money, and our giving needs to be based on faith, not solely on emotion.

Lori Guenther Reesor is currently a quarter-time pastor, half-time theology student and full-time mother. She has a background in fundraising and marketing analysis.

Originally published in Canadian Mennonite, June 11, 2007.




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