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Why don’t churches thank us when we give them money?

I had fun writing this blog about why churches should say “thank you” more often.  It’s a nice change from my more academic writing about churches and fundraising.

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Why don’t churches thank us when we give them money?

Churches survive because people give them money. Sure, that’s a simplification, but I stand by it. And I think the church needs to say “thank you” more.

Lots of other charities rely on donations too: animal shelters, relief organizations, medical charities. So these charities work very hard at building trust and connection with their donors. They send out thank-you letters, they call, they invite donors to events. They send out stories of what they did with the money. And yes, they ask for more money. But first, they say thank you and tell you what they did with your gift. They say, we built a well and here’s a photo. Or we helped 10 dogs find new homes, here’s a story of how Rex found a new owner. And they say thank-you again.

My donor research suggests that secular charities do a much better job of thanking donors than the local church does. My counsel for the church is simple: first, thank God. Second, thank your donors.

First, thank God. Thank God for the generous people who support the church. An offering prayer is an excellent place to start. Thank God for the generosity of church members who contribute time, talent and treasure. Be specific. Maybe one week be thankful for Sunday school teachers, the money to buy materials and so on. Be thankful for toddlers and goldfish crackers. It might be a new thing to thank God for donors — if gratitude is a new spiritual discipline, keep at it! The church wants people to give out of gratitude to God; worship provides a great place to model grateful behavior.

Second, thank donors. In my survey research into Christian giving, people reported that the local church was the charity the least likely to say “thank you.” How can this be? By this I mean, how can it be that the church can be so lacking in gratitude that it fails to thank its donors?

How does your local congregation acknowledge donations? A tax receipt at the end of the year is common practice. Is the difference between not giving and giving only an annual piece of paper? By doing the bare legal minimum required to acknowledge donations, the church sends out a simple message: it doesn’t matter whether you give or not. Very little changes if you don’t give, we just won’t send you a piece of paper next January.

I can hear the sputtering protest now: but it does matter — how else would we meet the budget!? Here’s the thing: a budget is not a compelling reason to give. No secular charity in their right mind does a budget shortfall appeal. People give to causes they believe in. A budget is not a cause. What great things is God doing in your church? Tell the stories! (Tip: blaming people for not going to the annual meeting will not help them embrace the mission of the church.)

A thank you letter is an opportunity to tell people that their support matters, and to tell them what their support accomplishes. Their support helps run Sunday school or visit seniors or help refugees. Spelling out what the money does is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the important work the church does. Gratitude builds community and strengthens discipleship. Bulletin update: Your donations help to keep the lights on during the week so we can host the young moms group and the AA meeting. Thank you!

People give money to causes they trust. Christians in my research trusted the local church the most. When I dug down into the reasons for this trust, I found that people were most familiar with their local church. It wasn’t a sense of shared values or common vision, but familiarity that provided the most connection. Given that people attend church less frequently than a generation ago, I wonder how this is going to play out. How long will this reservoir of trust last? I suggest that practicing gratitude will help. Thank God. Thank donors.

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