(fund)raising light in a dark time

How could any Catholic organization ask for any more money when international news has been saturated with reports of reprehensible clerical misconduct? Timing couldn’t be worse for Catholic fundraising–or could it?

I took a moment to reflect on my own successful fundraising efforts after I found myself supporting the volunteer effort in a friend’s parish, where they are in the midst of a diocesan capital campaign.

During my early 20’s, I worked in development for two separate cultural institutions in NYC, and the experience I gained in those positions became particularly beneficial when I was asked to be involved in annual parish fundraising campaigns. At the Met, I learned about how to ask for gifts and the importance of asking for amounts which might seem outrageously beyond the realm of possibility. I learned how to write a fundraising script and how to respond to donors’ objections.

Before I left the Metropolitan Opera Guild in 2009, I was successfully soliciting year-end gifts of $2000 or more from top-level contributors. Many of them were in the habit of making an annual contribution, and had already done so earlier in the year. They responded generously, despite significant financial losses incurred by the stock market crash of September 2008.

In my most recent full-time parish position, I was involved in coordinating volunteers for the Bishop’s Annual Appeal for two consecutive years. In late 2016, we announced the proposed sale of a building which was canonically relegated to non-sacred use. Four weeks later, the pastor asked our parishioners to increase their weekly offering. The parish was not ready. It was still struggling to embrace the reconfiguration of three heritage parishes that occurred several years ago. I knew many members of the community who stopped going to church altogether after the merger, which predated my tenure by nearly 5 years. In early 2017, our business manager asked me to lead the in-pew pledge enrollment, and our overall response increased by 10% over the previous year. I was amazed. How could we have such positive results in a climate of so much resentment and dissappointment?

Objectionable Material

When I worked at the Met, I quickly discovered the secret to fundraising success. With a little creativity, I could to transform key objections into donor motivation , and deliver my with compelling authenticity. The stock market crash meant the Met’s portfolio suffered, too, and box office sales were in decline. Those who could give were asked, and many did in fact give more because of this. In the reconfigured parish, the empty church remained on the market for over two years, which meant that utilities remained active, seasonal maintenance was required. This financial burden compromised the parish’s ability to hire key staff members and offer essential pastoral care. Ultimately, I learned that successful fundraising is not about money. Successful fundraising is the ability to authentically turn objections into opportunities for growth.

Fundraising in the midst of the current leadership crisis is not a prescription for failure. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, the temporal administration of a church is a business proposition. Churches have operating expenses, including compensation for the the time and talent of the people who give their lives to advance Her mission. In recent months, many voices on social media have cried for accountability, and these same voices have pleaded bishops to divest themselves of clerics whose actions render them unfit for ministry. In order for us to do that, we must be able to replace these positions with others who are suitably qualified. Because we are already faced with a clergy shortage, many of these replacements would invariably be lay people.

News flash! Lay people own homes. Lay people have spouses who need healthcare. Lay people have kids with kid-sized appetites, braces, college tuitions and a plethora of other expenses that are not factored into priest stipends because priests are simply not expected to support a family. Replacing four troublesome priests or deacons with four lay people would cost a diocese at least a quarter of a million dollars in salaries, benefits and other miscelaneous expenses in the first year alone. If an accountable church is truly what we desire, it is critical to support the church in a way which provides just compensation for women and men with the inevitable expense of living in the secular world.

Even if we saw a dramatic increase in vocations tomorrow, it would be at least a decade before clergy personnel was abundant again. Furthermore, we may stand to be surprised once more by the work of the Spirit. Relaxation of clerical discipline may place additional financial demands upon the church regardless of whether or not demands for accountability are met.

This year’s clerical abuse crisis is no reason to abandon parish fundraising efforts, nor is it just cause to withdraw financial support. In the context of time, talent and treasure, we have arrived at an ideal moment to stop, think and evaluate. What do we ask of the Church? What does God ask of our Church? If it is truly God’s will to bring forth change in our Church, how far are we really willing to go, and how much are we really willing to give to make God’s will a living reality?

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