Melissa Spas: How do you fundraise and ask for major gifts? Don't pitch. Nurture relationships first.

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Fundraising is about forming relationships, sharing the mission of your organization, and inviting others to participate, writes the managing director for the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving. 

The Rev. Ted Barbas, the chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston, had built a strong relationship with a quiet, unassuming donor over the years. As parishes in the region closed in response to COVID-19, this donor reached out. After speaking with Father Ted, the donor decided to give a “gift of love.”

He sent $5,000 checks to each parish in the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston and communicated that he wanted his financial support to give the congregations an opportunity to “catch their breath” while navigating online worship and digital giving.

Father Ted is a past participant in the course I teach, the Executive Certificate in Religious Fundraising, and he shared this story with me in April because he wanted to affirm for others the blessing that comes from fundraising that is built in relationship and conversation.

Lake Institute on Faith & Giving encourages religious leaders to embrace relationship-focused fundraising. We believe that fundraising is not about the pitch but about inviting others to join in an organization’s mission. In relationship, fundraising becomes a practice of hospitality, honoring the gifts of generosity and helping faithful givers live out their faith.

Even in the best of times, many religious leaders actively dislike fundraising and avoid it. Often, it’s relegated to the business operations of an organization rather than being integrated as a robust part of ministry. With multiple crises facing our communities, the pressure is even more intense.

That’s not surprising. If “stewardship” is just the religious word for transactional fundraising -- and let’s be honest, too often that’s all it is -- it can feel disingenuous to make a spiritual case for giving. In the transactional mode, fundraising can feel like sales. The resulting sense of disconnection and missing integrity is at the root of many leaders’ dislike and distaste for fundraising work.

But what if fundraising is not about sales at all? What if, in fact, fundraising is about forming relationships that nurture faithful discernment, sharing the mission of your organization, and inviting others to participate in that mission?

Seen in this way, fundraising is not even primarily about money but truly about inviting others into deeper relationship with God and with their own vocation. As Henri Nouwen says, fundraising is ministry, and there is a deep spirituality connected to this aspect of our human lives.

So what does that look like now, in the midst of catastrophe, uncertainty and upended plans? Ideally, you have been inviting people to give in the context of relationship all along, and you feel confident that there is strong alignment between your organization’s mission and the motivation and vocation of your donors.

But it’s never too late to frame your appeal to donors in relationship, and the changed circumstances of a crisis can create an opening for that connection to deepen or develop anew.

Consider the following ways of practicing relationship-focused fundraising.

Nurture relationships

Above all else, fundraising is about relationships, which are nurtured and developed in one-on-one conversation and connection over time. Call your donors -- to see how they are and to express your concern and care for them.

Most of the work of development is about that relationship, and this crisis may create an opening for you and your team of leaders (both staff and volunteers) to strengthen it. Reach out, without an agenda, and that conversation may lead you to the opportunity to invite a gift.

When you have the opportunity to talk with donors about their giving, you become recipients of their hospitality as well. They’ve invited you into their lives in a particular way. Relationship-focused fundraising is, in this sense, about mutuality and connection.

When you really know your donors and have a clear sense of their hopes for their philanthropy, you are then in a position to ask for a specific contribution with both confidence and humility.

Acknowledge that this is a time of crisis

Most faith-based nonprofit organizations, including congregations, rely on a base of individual donors who provide recurring, unrestricted financial support. We know that everyone is thinking differently today compared with just a few months ago.

When communicating about the regular, annual fundraising efforts of your organization, be attentive to the changed context in which you are asking for support.

Acknowledge it, and connect the change with your organization’s mission: Are you responding to some aspect of the crisis? Are you carrying on with your regular work in a challenging circumstance?

Celebrate the value of what your organization contributes to the world, and be specific.

Tell stories about your impact

Stories that illustrate the impact of your mission will be remembered long after facts and figures are forgotten -- that’s why I shared Father Ted’s story. Impact is compelling; donors are more interested in making a difference than in understanding an organization’s operations.

A group of people connected to my congregation, for example, leveraged financial resources and social capital to prevent residents from having their utilities turned off during a shelter-in-place mandate.

Learning that this group of neighbors helped a mother keep her kids safe at home says much more to me than listing the number of people who were helped or the dollars given.

Communicate in every way you can

Use every mechanism you have to communicate clearly, positively and with a warm welcome to your partners, constituents and stakeholders. Remember that this group supports your work, and it is natural to ask them to participate however they can.

Social media, email newsletters, mailings and video all create opportunities for you to invite others to join in your mission. Remember that this is part of relationship, and an expression of hospitality.

Further, make the process of giving easy. Online options reduce barriers to giving. Put the donate button where people expect it, in the upper right corner of your website, and employ a user-friendly platform.

While being sensitive to the changes wrought by this crisis, you can still create meaningful invitations for contribution. Remember that your existing donors and friends may be looking for ways to make a difference in the world, given all the suffering and uncertainty around us.

How to ask for a gift

Asking for a major gift -- however that’s defined in your organization -- can be nerve-wracking. But inviting a contribution actually involves a few simple steps.

First, do your homework. If you’ve taken the time to invest in this relationship, you’ll have learned about the donor’s previous giving and general capacity to give; you will know the donor’s priorities and what gift is reasonable to request.

Second, be clear about the relationship. Who is in the best position to ask the donor for a gift? Is it the committee chairperson, the development director, the pastor or executive director? Don’t be shy in enlisting help.

Then ask the prospective donor for a meeting (in today’s circumstance, a phone call or video meeting), transparently indicating that you’d like to discuss the work of the organization and ask for financial support.

In your conversation, listen to the donor. Really pay attention. How does your current need connect with the individual’s long-standing interest in your organization?

Ask the donor to tell you more. Get a sense of what he or she is excited about. This is part of the work of developing and deepening relationships.

At the same time, you are the expert and champion for your own mission, and your commitment to that mission positions you to ask others to join you.

Once you can see how the prospective donor’s interest aligns with your organization’s work, you’re ready to invite the donor to make a gift, clearly and specifically.

Practice what you want to say beforehand so you won’t stumble. For example, an Orthodox church I know of lost $100,000 of anticipated revenue when it was forced to cancel its Greek culture festival. If I were fundraising for this church, I might prepare to approach longtime members with a request framed in this way:

“James and Mary, you have been faithful supporters of our work for years. I am so grateful for your generosity and partnership. We are now in a new circumstance, given the crisis created by the coronavirus, but our mission remains the same. Will you consider making a gift of $10,000 this spring to help us maintain our focus and meet the new challenge?”

Once you’ve asked the question, listen to the response. Treat your request as a real question, one that requires thought and consideration. Be patient, with yourself and with your donor. Take a deep breath.

Most donors are glad to be asked, even if they are unable to make the gift you have requested; otherwise, they wouldn’t have accepted the meeting.

They may have questions. Go in with some prepared answers -- about the scope of the work ahead, about where you are in the fundraising process, about how they can make or structure a gift.

And be prepared to follow up, if they are looking for information you don’t have at the ready or would like to consult with others before making a decision.

Finally, the most crucial aspect, regardless of the response to this immediate request: express your thanks. Thank them for their engagement with your organization and its mission. Thank them for their time and openness to the conversation, and thank them for considering your invitation.

If they’ve said yes, follow up with a letter or email confirming the gift, providing any information they might need and once again expressing your appreciation.

Relationships and results

When we focus on relationships and see development work as part of our ministry of connection and partnership, the bottom line recedes as the mission is brought to the fore.

As I said earlier, fundraising is not about money -- although it requires us to talk about money openly, confidently and practically. Fundraising advances the mission of the organization, and developing robust stewardship is part of discipleship.

Father Ted celebrated the faithfulness of his donor in Boston, whose “gift of love” offered encouragement and affirmation as well as financial support. And it would not have been possible if he had not tended the relationship.

Religious leaders who operate in this way will find the work of fundraising rewarding and meaningful. The gifts you have in ministry will all serve your work of fundraising well: leading an organization, nurturing discernment, listening attentively, and seeing and celebrating God’s gifts in the lives of others.

Don’t hold back. Because of the investment you’ve made in connecting, others know that the mission you serve is important. Invite them into that mission with confidence.