Six Things We Can Learn from the Black Church About Fundraising

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I grew up in a historically black church.  Built in 1864, it first served as the only black school in the community and then transitioned into a Methodist church where the majority of the community went (if they were not Catholic)  Today, my church is like most typical churches. We average about 120 members a Sunday, and we have remnants of very large families who have been there for decades. I still attend today and am actively involved.

In the 1990s, our pastor took us on a journey to transform our little church by building an addition that cost upwards of $100,000.  I was young but I have vivid memories of this fundraising effort and the time it took for us to get there. Recently for Black History Month, a group of us sat through a slide of old photos and it brought back memories of the old church.  It reminded me of the massive effort it took for us to get from those humble beginnings to where we are now. It got me thinking how awesome it was that this little church in a big metropolitan area could reach their six-figure goal.

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There’s a lot we can learn from the black church that I think we overlook.  In a lot of ways, startup nonprofits are just like churches. In fact, the IRS automatically designates churches who meet 501c3 organizational requirements, as tax-exempt organizations. Small churches don't depend on large foundation grants to survive, they have relatively small budgets, rely heavily on volunteers and often have a strong commitment and connection to the local community. So it's natural that startup nonprofits can benefit in many ways from the small church’s fundraising experiences. Let's talk about the lessons and parallels we can draw between the black church and startup nonprofits. 

Just how powerful is the black church?

Doing a quick search on Google didn’t yield too much information about the value of the grassroots organizing and fundraising experiences of black churches.  You can find information about how churches were the foundation and backdrop for the American Civil rights movement, but I don’t think many people have pointed out the lessons that should translate to our community organizations today.  In fact, I think most folks completely ignore the power and the value of the African American giver.  In one study, African Americans were significantly more likely than their white peers, to donate to faith-based causes (71 percent vs. 53.7 percent). African Americans church-goers are 25 percent more likely to make a charitable donation than their peers who don't attend church services.  So, let’s talk about how black churches are *BOSSES* at fundraising.

They use their relationships

The appeal of a church, especially the small black church, is not only in the worship experience but the fellowship experience.  The “church family” prays together, struggles together, and experiences life together. Many family churches thrive on the relationships that have lasted through generations -through family and community ties.  There is a built-in trust that the congregation has with the church. They know the people they’re giving to, they know and trust (most times!) the treasuer and the people put in charge. Shoot, at some point someone in your family may have been in those positions.  People give to organizations they know and trust. We're more comfortable giving to people we know. And when you trust where you're giving, you invite others to join in. Churches rely heavily on their members' networks for more public awareness, to encourage attendance, and eventually to collect dollars. There is A LOT of community capital that sits in the pews of small churches every day. At my church, we had a famous singing group, teachers, retired military and businessmen, and connections to elected officials sitting in our pews every week. When we sold fish dinners, we relied on the congregation to tell their coworkers, neighbors and families to participate. When we collected pledges, the congregation was asked to look at their networks and ask their families to give to raise their own personal goals. Your best bet in fundraising is relying on your supporters and their networks. You will be successful if you’re able to leverage the networks of your supporters. If your supporters trust your organization, they will be willing to tell others, and be ambassadors for you. That trust and those networks will be the foundation of any giving campaign you have.

They let you see your giving in action

How many times have you been approached outside of your local store, and been asked to support a cause?  This just happened to me last week. You feel compelled because a person has a sad story or a feeling of guilt suddenly rushes over you and you donate money.  I’m willing to bet that if approached again at the store, you probably wouldn't give again. Why? Because you likely didn’t see any impact or result in the money you gave.  People like to see that their donation was effective - they like to see the end result. Church members have the advantage of seeing the action of giving right in front of their faces.  In fact, they may be direct beneficiaries of their giving based on the services the church offers, or they may participate in services provided to others in the community. When you know your money is doing some good, you’re more inclined to give more, because you want to do more good.  You’re willing to keep coming back and keep giving because you’re in the midst of the action. Remember that your donors want to be actively engaged in your work. Give them a front row seat to see where their money is going. Don’t forget to invite them to program events, or share intimate stories and visuals of the great work you’re doing.  It may be the reason your donors will want to keep giving.

They engage people where they are

When you think of a high-yielding fundraiser, most people think about large galas or banquets. A lot of people rush to the high-cost events, not realizing the money they’re losing by choosing certain fundraisers over other, less conspicuous efforts. At my church, we were not above a car wash to raise money.  I participated in many bake sales in my day. You may turn your nose up at these fundraisers because you may believe that they don’t yield much.  But there were many times where we reached close to a $1,000 in one day with these type of fundraisers. Many times a church member stopped by and donated above and beyond because they wanted to support the effort.  How about the church fish fry? To this day, my church still runs a fish fry every year to support a thriving scholarship fund for youth in the church. Don’t feel like your events have to be sophisticated or over the top in order to raise money.  In fact, the more over the top it is, it's more likely you’ll lose money. The goal is to keep costs low and proceeds high. Low-cost fundraisers that only require mostly elbow grease and a lot of donated time and goods can yield more money than you expect.  Don’t neglect the fundraisers that meet your community where they are. Maybe a bake sale is right up your alley. Maybe a community day event is what works for you. Maybe car washes are a cash cow for you. Do what works for YOU, and don’t be enticed by the idea of a fancy gala or event that you may not be ready for.

They support a culture of giving

By far, the biggest lesson we can learn from the black church is that there is a built-in expectation for the congregation to give.  It’s backed up by Scripture! And if you grew up in the church I know you know what scripture I’m referencing (bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, anyone?).  The point is that people come to church expecting that they will be asked to give. The offering time is clearly a section during the order of worship. Church members are asked very deliberately to give at least 10% of their income.  There are church reports about tithing. There are church workshops about tithing. There are sermons about tithing. It is not something that the church shies away from. And even though I can’t stand it when certain pastors call out their congregation by asking those to stand with their $100 or $50 dollars, the bottom line is that it works.  You will not be successful in fundraising until you get comfortable with asking.  You increase your likelihood of raising funds when you ask. And be specific! Ask for what you want. Be clear about what you need. If you need $1500 for a van, then make it clear you’re asking for money for a van. Black churches get it right because it primes the congregation to give, and they are very deliberate about it.  Learn how to be direct and unabashed about your ask. The livelihood of your organization may depend on it.

They are excellent at setting goals

I’m going to take it back for some of you.  How many of you grew up with the thermometer sitting in the vestibule when the church was raising money? Who knows about the building fund? I think every black church in America had a building fund. My church actually had a replica of the new church built, and every Sunday we held a second offering where people actually placed their envelopes inside of the mini-church.  Look at us innovating way back in the 90s! The power in that image was the people could visualize the plan. People knew exactly what they were working toward. It’s hard for people to feel motivated when they’re not clear about the end goal. Our pastor clearly laid out the game plan and let us know what the future could hold.  It motivated us to give more. It motivated us to stay the course even when it took a while to get to our goal. It gave us something to strive for when we knew we were falling short. Make sure you identify goals in any fundraising effort. Tie your fundraising strategies to your goal so the work can feel manageable. Don’t let volunteers or staff feel lost and not understand what they’re working toward.  Celebrate your milestones along the way. Let your donors know where you are so they can be compelled to give more. Make your goals clear and transparent every step of the way.

Their church members are all in

Because the church is largely based on membership, their members are more invested in the work of the church because it's their church home. Members are invested in the success of the church.  When it’s time to buckle down and raise money, the congregation feels a sense of ownership of the process.  The congregation is what helps keep the doors open and the lights on. They know it’s because of their contributions. Everyone knows they have a role to play and there are key people who always step up and keep the church running.  When my church was raising money for the building fund, I have a clear memory as a child bringing my dollar in my church envelope to drop in the mini church for the offering. It was OUR building fund, not just the pastor’s. When we broke ground, we all celebrated together.  It was his vision, but he brought us all along with the vision. We each felt a responsibility to make sure we did our part. You will not be successful doing this on your own. When it comes to raising money, you should not be the only person leading the work.  That is the main responsibility of your Board and your fundraising committee. You will learn early on that it just won’t work if you carry everything on your shoulders. Everyone needs to take ownership of the financial health and success of the organization, which means they should be actively engaged in fundraising.  Your Board members should be giving to the organization, and they should participate in all fundraising efforts. Any events? They should be there and should be inviting their networks. Make sure you encourage a culture of ownership where everyone-including staff- feel a sense of connection to the organization and want to see the organization win.

These simple, yet transferable lessons should the fundraising basics of your organization. Are there other lessons you’ve learned from your church experience? Don’t be shy, drop a comment and let me know!