Strategy & Marketing

The Truth about Ministry Fundraising

I originally wrote this post earlier in the year, and this month a version of it appeared as my faith and culture column in Charisma magazine. I’m already starting to get some criticism of the column, so I thought I’d publish it again, and see what you think. Let the good times begin:

The U.S. government has given non-profit status to organizations created to serve the common good. Humanitarian efforts, religious organizations, educational outreach, medical services – all are common types of non-profit groups. They accept donations, and are exempt of taxation, which allows them enormous financial incentives and latitude. Therefore, in the case of churches and ministries, fundraising has become a vital tool that’s used to raise the necessary money to make ministry happen.

However, in many cases, the tail has started to wag the dog. Today, some ministries have virtually changed their sense of original mission to a focus on raising money.

Fundraising is a massive business. It has spawned financial consultants, direct response companies, fulfillment businesses, and more. Helping ministries raise money has become an industry in itself.

The “personal” ministry letter you receive each month was probably not written by the ministry leader at all, but by a direct mail strategist, and it was designed by an graphic designer for maximum response. Today, color scheme, spacing, layout, and structure are some of the most important features of monthly letters – and the most effective fundraisers can even compare responses based on different colors of the envelope. They mail the letters on just the right day each month so it arrives when people get their paycheck. Statistics prove that if it’s only a few days late, the response will drop considerably. I’ve seen people fired from ministries because they mailed the monthly letter 48-72 hours behind schedule – it’s considered that important.

In fact, I spoke to one “Christian” fundraiser who said that the single most important thing is getting a person to open the envelope – and he would be willing to do anything to make that happen.

Even lie about what’s inside.

I’m not against fundraising. There are some marvelous ministries out there doing great work because of effective relationships with their supporters and partners. But I do think you need to know how the business works – because believe me – it’s a business, and they’re trying to work you.

Here are some suggestions to consider as you pick up the next fundraising letter from your mailbox:

1) They’ve timed the letter to arrive when you have the most money in the bank. Giving will be easier for you, but that shouldn’t control your decision.

2) The cute little underlines, exclamation points, and arrows that look like the writer inserted with a pen after it was written – weren’t marked by a person, but a computer. Each one was strategically planned for placement and effect.

3) The amount of the “suggested gift” on the reply was calculated by a computer based on your past giving history, and often with the goal to nudge you to give a little more.

4) Even the color of the paper was researched based on past responses to that particular shade.

5) The trinket (Jesus junk?) the ministry sends you actually gets results! You’re more likely to give because they ministry sends you something in return.

Am I suggesting that we stop fundraising? Absolutely not. As I said before, great ministries are impacting the world because good people give. Plus, there are many gifted fundraising experts who are ethical and operate with utmost integrity.

But I am suggesting we become informed givers. Don’t be a ministry zombie and give on impulse – for any reason. Give because you’ve researched a ministry, believe in what it’s doing in the world, have confirmed it’s integrity and track record, and then prayed about the gift.

Giving for any other reason, is usually a waste of money.

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  1. I worked in data entry for a ministry with tens of thousands on their mailing list. Every time a person sent a prayer request and/or money, we plugged in every detail that would generate the most specific and personalized response. I no longer work there – and could never return because of my conscience.

    These letters are deceptive. They are designed to make individuals believe the "man or woman of God" has taken a personal interest and written a personal letter to them. With that kind of care, people will of course give more.  
    I believe it is more than simply savvy marketing; it is a form of spiritual abuse. People in need of ministry open themselves up to these ministers, and their giving is often based upon a false perception. 
    "Wow! He/She cares enough about me to know my name, took the time to write and sign a letter to me, and is personally praying for me! I'm so thankful for his/her personal pastoral touch that I'm going to write a check right now!" Unfortunately, that minister doesn't even know that person exists.
    The way of integrity – honesty, transparency, with no hint of manipulation – are either true personal letters, or mass mailings written by the minister, addressed to "friends" or "partners". Enough of the manipulation! 
  2. Hi, my name is Mary.  I am a ministry fundraiser (Hi, Mary, the crowd says).I write letters and design them to get response.  I am measured by my clients by the amount of money I raise to help them do their good work.I study what works and I do more of it –but only if it is keeping with the heart, message and vision of the ministry and the Lord I serve.  I have to sleep nights too.Twenty years ago, the goal was to be in homes before the first, so it arrived before the Social Security checks did.  Phil, those days are long past. No one gets a check in the mail anymore.  Even grandma is on direct deposit.We time mailings according to donor likes.  We mail more often to donor's who respond many times a year, less to annual givers.I doubt anyone savvy enough to be reading your website thinks that Billy Graham does his own underlining on his letters.The suggested gift is driven by a donor's giving history, not the largest gift they have ever given, but their average (most of the time).  Why ask a person to give $100 if they have only given $10.  Its too big a leap.  Why ask someone who gives $100 to give $10, it shows you don't know anything about them.Color of paper…sorry.  I have not tested that.Jesus junk, you are right.  But we give people what they want, not what they "should want".I have a little girl that if I put a plate of fried eggs on the table, she will sail them across the room.  If I give her scrambled eggs, she eats every bite. I give them to her the way she wants them because at the end of the day, its still eggs.If I can read a data report and find out which donors want them fried and which want them scrambled –what is the harm of that?  Why not mail Phil Cooke a "non Jesus junk mailing with no underlining and a $100 ask" and his dad a "Jesus junk, $10 ask version of the same"?Love you Phil…But can't amen you on this 


  3. The real problem with fundraising is not the way they get people to open the envelope – that's just basic marketing; it is the blatant manipulation that some (not all) organizations develop by playing to the "us" versus "them" mentality. If you don't send us money, they're going to win. It's possible to stand up for Biblical principles, evangelize, and promote discipleship without endorsing fear as a legitimate perspective for thoughtful, prayerful Christianity.

  4. Interesting conversation so far. I've purposefully waited a couple of days to respond, wondering about the tone Phil's obviously provocative post would engender.

    I'm dismayed not so much by the manipulation or integrity of the 'system,' but that the system exists at all. We're all fully functionally aware of how it works – both Gregg and Mary make valid points (albeit from two sides of the same coin). It's easy to imagine that they both work/ed at the exact same shop with such widely variant opinions.

    I too, have been employed in this crazy biz long enough to have seen the excesses and the blessings created within the D.R. world. But my angst over the matter runs hot and cold; maybe I'm just too crusty to care about it anymore. On the one hand, everyone who receives 'junk mail' has the same right to trash it (before or after opening) as they do to hit the remote control and not watch the shows that generate the paper.

    On the other hand, when are we (as an industry) going to finally realize there is a better…far, far better way?

  5. Norm, nice to "see" you again.  Its been a while.

    I appreciate your comments… and would love to hear the "better way."

    Every one of us modifies how we communicate to someone if we want a certain response from them.

    Most husbands know that the night they want their wives to look at them in a romantic way is not the night they they bring out the details of overspending on the family budget.

    Now I do agree with Gregg when it is abused.  I think of one guy in Texas opening his letters with:

    "Mary, God woke me up at 2:12 AM last night to pray for you …Mary, He gave me a word for you…"  Makes me sick!  especially since God always seems to tell him that I am supposed to send in $1000.

    That is so different than noticing (via a datbase) that someone never orders tapes of any subject …and therefore only offer them books in future mailings.

    There is a right way to use this info– don't lump us all together.


  6. According to Phil:

    “I am suggesting we become informed givers. Don’t be a ministry zombie and give on impulse – for any reason. Give because you’ve researched a ministry, believe in what it’s doing in the world, have confirmed it’s integrity and track record, and then prayed about the gift.”

    I agree

    Is it wrong to ask for money to support ministry? No, Paul did it frequently in the epistles. And He let Timothy know that ministers deserve to be paid for their work. I think marketing from a Christian world view needs to be focused on informing donors where there money is going and how it is being used. In the end, its not the ministries money, but the Lord’s. 1 Corinthians is clear that we should not give out of impulse or guilt, but out of love and thanksgiving to God. Sure we need to communicate to our audience in appropriate and effective ways, but purposed manipulation should not be a method of fund-raising. Communicate the effectiveness of the ministry, share the need, and let God do the rest. Consider the following verses:

    1 Timothy 5:17- 18: “Elders who do their work well should be paid well, especially those who work hard at both preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “Do not keep an ox from eating as it treads out the grain.” And in another place, “Those who work deserve their pay!”

    2 Corinthians 8:11b-12 “Give whatever you can according to what you have. If you are really eager to give, it isn’t important how much you are able to give. God wants you to give what you have, not what you don’t have.

    2 Corinthians 9:7 You must each make up your own mind as to how much you should give. Don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. For God loves the person who gives cheerfully.

  7. “How much easier it is to be critical than to be correct.” -Benjamin Disraeli

    Mary, you have my respect. You’re in the business. Doing the work. It’s so easy from people on the sidelines to tell how it should be. Thanks for your challenging comments and for striving to do fundraising in a Christlike way. Keep it up!

  8. Phil –

    I just read your column in Charisma. My comments relate directly to that column…

    I must say that I am stunned by your article.  We both know that most (98%) of the ministries out there are legitimately pursuing the call of God and often struggle trying to make ends meet in that pursuit.  You have most certainly struck a blow that now makes every ministry suspect and every fundraiser a potential charlatan.I believe your article may do significant harm to ministries who are legitimately trying to honor God… not to mention the negative impact your article may have on businesses like mine who try to help these folks.  We are committed to integrity in the work we do — we do not lie — we do not manipulate — we attempt to communicate need, mission and impact in an effective manner.  But thanks to your article our motives and methods are now suspect.While there may be some fundraiser out there who would be willing to lie about what is on the envelope just to get it opened – most of us in this business have a lot more integrity than that. While timing of a letter is important I do not know of anyone who was fired JUST because they missed a drop date.  If that actually happened, my guess is there were a string of other events leading up to that moment.  All marketing principles taken out of context can appear to be manipulative.  This is just as true with production as it is with fundraising.  However, in context  they make sense and are an expression of good stewardship.Phil, your column is supposed to be directed to Media & Culture.  You have had such a positive impact in this area.  If you remember our lunch meeting at PF Chang’s in Burbank a couple of years ago – I told you that I believed your God-given assignment was to build bridges between the Hollywood community and the Christian community. You agreed. There is no one who does a better job at this than you.  However, this most recent article does not build bridges – but painfully tears them down.

    Phil, you are my friend … you are my colleague … I respect and appreciate you … but I believe this article was way out of line and hurtful to the body of Christ.

  9. Mark – great response.  You're an old friend and I respect your opinion.  However, I both opened and closed the column with the fact that there are plenty of ministries and fundraisers that operate with integrity, and fundraising is a vital part of what we should be doing.  I make my living from it as well, so I have to be aware of the impact of what I write.  The point of the article is that givers should be "informed" givers.  I'm sure you have no argument with that.   If we in the church can't pull the curtain a bit and help educate people about the unsavory sorts out there that you and I discuss frequently, then how are we helping them?

  10. 98 percent? Not quite-especially of anything you see on TBN-maybe any ministry on TV is in the 2 percent-they have decieved themselves into thinking they are doing God's calling, when in reality they are blinded by the lifestyle they so immensely enjoy. To do that they have to raise amazing amounts of money…

  11. I'd certainly be interested in hearing anything from Norman Mintle.

    All capital is raised by one of four methods; 1. taxation, 2.donation, 3. selling a product, or 4.equity.

    Real problems seem to occur when the lines are blurred between these four techniques.

    Those with a elementary understanding of economics will know that there are situations when markets fail. Those situations often require government intervention.

    Similarly, I am certain there are situations when non-profit capital raising fails, and commercial intervention is required. Think of the hundreds of millions of dollars donotated to Christian television each year. Now contrast that with the 25 million invested into the production of "The Passion of the Christ".

    I know this may be a controversial idea, but I think some of our problems with Christian television are rooted in the fact that we havent trully commercialised. We resort to the "quasi-comercialisation" selling of religious trinkets instead of placing true value on reaching the lost and discipling effective Christians.

    This is such a huge topic that cant be dealt with effectively in under 200 words. Its worthy of an entire book.

  12. Amen to that! With as many people distressed about this subject. I say absolutely, Anthony. You could call the book somply, "What the heck is wrong with ministry these days?" or, "If it Ain't Fixed, don't break it. (And other modern-Christian spoonerisms)"

  13. I find it troubling that it is so hard to sustain a new television ministry.

    Why do we make it so hard for people that are preaching the Gospel?  We know they have to pay for airtime and production, but this generation of givers:

    * Have less loyalty

    My Grandmother gave to two charities for 20 years, Billy Graham and Feed The Children.  Most people today spread their giving over a half a dozen or more groups, and those change from year to year.  Then again, she only got two channels on her TV (if she went outside and turned the pole on the antenna.)

    * Have learned to ignore

    We open our mail over the trash can (right?).  The less we respond –the harder the ministries have to work to get our attention — that's how the Jesus junk got started.  Anything to get it opened (people reason).

     *Have more of a window into ministry leaders lives

    With the internet, the reasons not to give (i.e. scandels) pile up every day.  It doesn't change what the Bible says about giving, but it sure causes many to spend it at Starbucks instead.

    Phil there is no reason for bad fundraising in the name of the Lord, but there are plenty of excuses!

  14. Collaboration, Partnership, and combined resources….Why sould there be 10 struggling ministries with an identical vision, when if they were to merge, they could have one amazing flourishing program?! Christian TV should stop re-inventing this wheel. Everyone always starts from scratch as if it's never been done before. and as if there's no one else with their vision. 

  15. Great idea with a lot of truth in it, but in reality many of us are not humble enough to work together. It's the one great thing missing amongst us believers – unity – because we cannot look past our imperfections and differences and see the common goal which is to love God by obeying Him and build His kingdom (not ours). Selfishness which has been greatly given life to by the overemphasis of our perfection in the flesh measured by the material & financial success we acquire to where we do not see the need to depend on God Who knows our hearts. The day the believers become united is the day we will be heard, seen and taken seriously. We are getting there but it will take the fire of God to perform this in our time.

  16. Thanks Phil.

    Another excellent article!  I can see why it could be taken so personally, but I also don't get the impression that you were attacking upstanding ministries.

    Rules on giving:

    1) Tithe to your local church.  This is biblical.  Don't like the way the church is handling its money, or doing this, or doing that?  Pray and seek God regarding whether you are in the right church.

    2) Give more than a tithe… It is ALSO biblical to give beyond that.

    3) Do not give out of guilt, or because you feel compelled by MAN to give.  Truly pray about it, ask God to line your heart with his.  If the church (or other ministry) is doing a special fundraiser – don't give because you feel railroaded. 

    4) Don't give a little extra "because you can afford it"  Seek God, and know what you are supposed to do – but don't use your "deaf ear" to avoid what He wants you to do.

    5) When you feel the nudge from God to give – do it.  If you don't know that it is God, then it probably isn't God.  "My sheep know my voice".

    Hey when it comes to fundraising / mailings / etc.  The truth is that some ministries spend a large budget on these things.  Not wrong in and of itself but these efforts STILL need to be done with the SAME goals as what GOD wants.  Also realizing that God may want you to send something else this month…. like something that isn't asking for money at all.  Faith doesn't always make perfect sense.  Sometimes God will test your obedience by asking you to do something that defies OUR logic.  IT ISN'T JUST ABOUT BUSINESS.


  17. The key to everything is being led by the Spirit. The Spirit has led me away from all greedy televangelists and I thank Him for it. This little sheep is no longer in the wolf's mouth. It sure feels good not to have teeth digging into my back anymore. If your fundraising is not led by the Spirit you are in sin. Anything not done in love is sin. Anything not done in faith is sin. Also, if God leads you to start a ministry, He'll provide for it as long as you keep following Him. So why the need for a fundraiser? Isn't the Holy Ghost sufficient? Some of these ministries were never intended by God to grow so large in the first place, thus the reason they are falling today. They left the contentment of humility and ran ahead of God.

  18. Good question,

    No doubt, in these difficult economic times where millions are still unemployed and families are struggling, volunteerism is down, as well as donations, and I don’t expect to see recession end anytime soon.

    What I researched was all the fundraisers which actually save people money, not cost them money, and I found nothing that fit the times and was recession proof. When I found and researched this unique new fundraiser, I had almost given up in my search.

    Simply put, no one likes to sell the traditional overpriced candy, cookies, pizza dough, wrapping paper, discount cards, or more expensive campaigns of raffles or carnivals, and I have done them all. With fewer volunteers due to economy, fewer people with spare time to donate, things are getting worse, not better. When my daughter selling half the girl scout cookies this year over last, this says it all to me.

    If you could offer your volunteers an incentive worth thousands which everyone should have, and few can afford, would this help your fundraisers results with more volunteers? When you can offer the average family up to $100K legacy life benefit, plus access to health medical RX benefit plans, how many families would be helped by the above? Again, verified value is what people are looking for, not overpriced products which have been used in traditional fundraisers for decades.

    If you do not like selling, then learn about the concept of telling and sharing the value of peace of mind for your family. For any NPO or any charity fundraiser, ones which focus on Christian values, children outreach, bullying, child protection services, internet education, helping homeless, feeding the hungry, combined with many more money saving benefits of membership, nothing is easier to share with others than saving money while helping others. People helping people is our mission, raising unlimited funds is our goal for all non profit organizations.

    Join-Free to learn more and receive an instant free custom website to promote.

    God Bless All,

  19. Great post, We must be aware in the last days there will be many counterfeit voices saying I am he! prophets not sent by God. False ministries will stand alongside the true ones. You can be assured if everything seems to be about money there is a good chance they serve the God of Mammon not Jesus Christ. Give to what matters to Jesus, read the Gospels. Does the ministry give to the poor and outcast?  Or is it just the reflection of someones ego. 

  20. Thank You for your aricle, I found it helpful as I am deciding on a direction for an item I am putting up for market soon.

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