Some New Thoughts on Fundraising

One of the questions I get asked most often these days, usually right after “aren’t you glad you moved and miss than winter in Boston,” is something to the effect of: “how does it feel to not have to fundraise anymore?”

Actually it isn’t as much of a question as an indirect way of saying: “You’re life must be so much better now that you don’t have to fundraise.”

I really dislike this comment.

To begin with, I actually liked fundraising. It kept me in touch with a lot of people who I otherwise might not have stayed in contact with. It forced me to ask for help, which is not something I enjoy doing naturally. We experienced grace and generosity in ways we would never have otherwise. Fundraising created a community with friends near and far, a sustaining community, a community that also helped us find our new role.

Furthermore, just because I am not fundraising doesn’t mean we are free of financial risk. That’s the subtext for a lot of people: fundraising is crazy and risky, working at a church is safe and secure (and in many people’s minds lucrative).

I object to this line of thinking greatly. Yes, the realities of fundraising are quite different from the realities of a salary. But, a church salary, especially at an urban, inner city church, is no sure thing. This community took a risk in hiring me, and any small church pastor will tell you about weekly anxiety and uncertainty.

This is not to say that I don’t have critiques of fundraising or that there aren’t aspects of the process that I am glad to be free of. It’s just not quite what most people might expect.

A couple of critiques:

1) First, fundraising is exhausting. It is a never-ending process. But, while it is a grind, that’s not actually what I am referring to.

I had a supporter who is a professor at Fuller Seminary in the psychology department, and she’s been working on a big project on Young Life, looking into the effects of camp ministry on discipleship. In the process she met and talked at a lot of Young Life staff, hearing their stories and getting to know what their life is like.

She drew a conclusion: Young Life staff are stressed out and working well beyond their capacity.

You might assume this is because they work too many hours, play too many silly games, and spend several weeks of the year at camp. But, that’s not actually what is wearing them out.

According to the research my friend was doing, the stress came through the balancing of too many communities. A Young Life staff has the community of student’s they are investing in (usually at a school). Then they have their co-workers and other area staff. They are building relationships with the school administrators. They have their church circles and their neighbors. They have other friends. If they are married, they are also balancing those “worlds.”

And then they have this group of people called “supporters,” 100-300 people they are regularly in contact with about prayer requests and financial support.

Now, as I mentioned earlier this is a beautiful thing, to have so many people supporting you. But, it is exhausting too.

In Boston we had our Sojourn team, our campus groups, our church groups, our friends in Boston, Amy’s work, our neighbors, our extended family around the country, other friends around the country, and then our support team. Some of those overlapped, but many did not. It’s no wonder we struggled with getting to know our neighbors.

One thing we already appreciate about this new chapter is that there are fewer circles to manage and we are freer to interact in each circle. We are more present than we ever were in Boston.

2) Second, I struggle with the unfortunate reality that fundraising is far too often used as THE vetting tool for mission work. In other words, if you can fundraise, you can do the work.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of great missionaries, campus ministers, young life leaders, etc, who never get to do what they were clearly created to do because they don’t have the network for fundraising.

Now, for some people this is a real obedience issue: there are some folks who are lazy, undisciplined, afraid or unwilling to ask, or  who lack the training to hit their fundraising goals. These folks squander the opportunity and gift in front of them.

But, for every one of those folks, there are two great missionaries who walk away because, for whatever reason, they can’t fundraise enough money. I think in particular of the college graduate who has to pay off student loans, or the first-generation immigrant student who simply doesn’t have the resources in their networks, or the new Christian who doesn’t have the church experience/community.

We make it very difficult for these people to participate if fundraising is the vetting issue.

Furthermore, there are some people who are great at fundraising who have no business being campus ministers or missionaries because of character issues or gifting.

3) My final thought is that fundraising can make the relationship between the organization and its employees difficult at times. If funds are not properly accounted for and kept track of fastidiously, it can breed resentment. Especially if some people are essentially forced into carrying the load for a time (or indefinitely).

I won’t go into details, but when I started fundraising I kept very detailed records of what I brought in and took out (no one else was doing this for me when I started and I am grateful we brought someone in to do this for us about two years into my time with the organization).

That decision turned out to be prescient, because there came a day when a significant chunk of money of that money disappeared. If not for my records I’m not sure what we would have done. For the record, this story is less about losing money and more of an example of one way that fundraising can lead to resentment and frustration.

This is an interesting phenomenon because one of the benefits of fundraising is the regular experience of grace and miraculous provision. It is amazing how quickly that turns when there is “miraculous” disappearing of funds. It tested my understanding of grace to be sure.

Having said all that I did enjoy fundraising. I got choked up writing my final thank you notes and I miss the connection and bonding that fundraising brings.

But I also feel free in a lot ways that seem healthy.

To my friends that continue to fundraise: keep on it faithful friends!

To the organizations that require fundraising: may you be full of integrity and serve the best interests of your employees.

To the rest of us: may we be generous to those who ask for our partnership.


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