Inspiring Generous Giving in Congregations: Antidotes to Donor Fatigue

origami money heart

     Fundraising is the gentle art of teaching people the joy of giving.   ~Hank Rosso

The members of our congregations make our faith what it is.  As one looks out into the pews, the faces you see possess an energy, commitment, intelligence and engagement matched by few other groups of individuals.  Along with their shared values and faith, each person that gathers together each week gives of themselves to make the celebration of this liberal faith tradition possible.  Some contribute their talents and expertise in leading the congregation to greater fulfillment of its mission; others contribute their wisdom and compassion in bringing forth the very best of their fellow worshipers.  Most also give generously of their wealth, whether great or small, to provide the resources necessary to support and grow the congregation that inspires them.

At times, however, these same individuals may experience what is commonly referred to as “Donor Fatigue,” a situation in which these supporting members reduce or entirely cease their financial support of the congregation.  Though certainly many household budgets have been challenged by the contracting economy, this drop in giving may be caused by any number of reasons: perhaps there is a lack of trust in the congregation’s ability to steward the resources effectively; concerns over inadequate staff, space, or budgets; or anxiety and conflict arising from differing theological perspectives or strategic priorities.

The Challenge of the Conversation:       

Frequently in our culture, the topic ofman-and-woman-talking-vector-illustration_Mkbp2Cwd (1) money and generous giving is effectively taboo, compounding the difficulty of addressing the concerns that the members of your congregation may be experiencing.  Your congregation can help to de-sensitizing the topic by talking about it to the members of your congregation in reflective, non-anxious ways:

  • Having a year-round stewardship program to connect the topics of money, giving, and faith in people’s minds can help to establish and cultivate openness to giving and generosity within their lives.
  • Establishing and communicating clear expectations for congregational membership and giving: a culture of generosity springs from an inspiring vision and high expectations for participation.
  • Facilitating conversations and small group discussions about money and its relationship to individuals, families, and the larger community can help in reducing anxiety in talking about giving and generosity.
  • Offer programs to help develop personal financial skills and decision-making about how one’s money can be used, such as personal finance sessions, debt reduction workshops, or introductions to planned giving.

Vision, Leadership and Accountability

People give to congregations for many reasons, both rational and emotive, that are unique to each person.  However, there are complementary themes that emerge from conversations with generous supporters of the work of heart and mind found in Unitarian Universalism.  You can (re)inspire your members’ generosity by addressing the three concepts of vision, leadership and accountability.

Finally, clarifying and communicating the vision of your congregation and the role that financial generosity plays in its ongoing well-being, active engagement of the ministry and lay leadership in stewardship processes, and recognition and accountability all play tremendously important roles in strengthening the stewardship activities of any organization.


  • Clarify and be able to communicate the vision of your congregation and the role that financial generosity plays in its ongoing well-being.
  • People want to make a positive difference in the world and to be part of something that changes lives for the better.
  • Examine what the message for giving to the congregation is.  Is it inspiring?  Does it say “Live the Vision!” or “Pay the Bills”?
  • Help people to distinguish between expectations for charitable giving and demands of our mass consumer culture when it comes to the perception or sources of fatigue.
  • How does generosity and giving contribute to the formation of your congregation’s faith identity?  Does it express itself as a spiritual practice of generosity or a mandate of obligatory giving?

Ministry and Leadership

  • Examine the public perception of your ministry and leadership in their ability to bring the congregation’s vision and mission to life.
  • Donors choose to give to organizations that demonstrate their capacity with competent, effective, trustworthy, and accountable leadership.
  • How involved is the ministry in leading and promoting effective stewardship and generous giving within your congregation?
  • The lay leadership and staff can also play an active role in advocacy and stewardship, particularly if stewardship is integrated into leadership development training and workshops.

Recognition and Accountability

  • Support is given to organizations that are perceived to be strong, successful, and worthy of their gifts.  Fiscal responsibility is critical to a congregation’s stewardship success!
  • Report back to your membership on how contributions are used and the difference that has been made as a result of their generosity.
  • Thank people as often as possible and celebrate the achievements that they have made possible.


Though exceptionally generous individuals may give unsolicited gifts to the organizations that they believe to be capable and worthy of their support, it is much more common that people must be invited to demonstrate their generosity.  Your members must be asked to make a gift to your congregation!

Making a compelling case to encourage their gifts further enhances the generosity that is demonstrated; helping your fundraising “ask” to resonate with people’s hearts and minds, inspiring their giving.  Elements of a compelling fundraising message include the following:

  • It is Simple:  Keep mission and values central to your message.
  • It is Unexpected:  A pressing need or barrier to overcome can pique donor interest.
  • It is Concrete:  Many people are motivated to support causes that lead to definite and tangible results.
  • It is Credible:  Not only is your congregation capable of carrying out the programs described, but they are likely to have the desired outcome.
  • It taps Emotion:  Your message should move the donor emotionally, with an inspiring message that offers opportunities for transformation.
  • It makes use of Stories:  Narratives and testimonies can readily convey and relate to people’s passion.
  • It is SURPRISING: How generosity touches lives and makes a positive difference in the world–celebrate!

Wishing you great success in your stewardship~

Laurel 2012


Laurel signature






Giving Speaks Consulting

For more information about donor cultivation, relationships, and motivation:

Giving – The Sacred Art, Lauren Tyler Wright (available at

Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate, J. Clif Christopher

Passing the Plate, Christian Smith & Michael O. Emerson with Patricia Snell

The Spirituality of Fund-raising, Henri J. M. Nouwen

“Fundraising Fundamentals” Blog:



Building an Abundant Spirit

The Giving Speaks blog is pleased to share another guest post by K. Peter Henrickson of the Pacific Northwest*

We all want to be generous people, and most of us want that quality to be present in those we hang out with — particularly in our churches.  But what does that mean?  What observable differences will we see around us when a spirit of abundance abounds?  To bring focus to how an abundant attitude might shape congregational behavior let’s consider three specific examples in church life:  the worship service, the coffee hour, and our special programs.

What happens in your church when the collection plate gets passed each Sunday morning?  In many Unitarian Universalist congregations it sails along without so much as a stutter stop until it reaches the end of the row, and then after some twisting and reaching starts again and gathers speed as it scoots back, seemingly with a life of its own.  Each week a large portion of those present contribute neither cash nor check, particularly as more and more make their pledge payments online.

Why is that?  Put differently, what are we telling ourselves about this weekly request for money?  I think for many the internal monologue is that this plate routine is irrelevant since we already pledge to support our church; it is a somewhat bothersome distraction from our worship therefore.  But we tolerate The Plate Thing because, after all, there are visitors among us, or perhaps “those who should be pledging more.”  We tell ourselves that passing the plate is just another way the church has of reaching into our pockets.  But, we continue, our pledge is already quite fair, even Quite Good — and anyway we’ve decided already what we will give annually and want to be respected in our judgment about what is right for us.

Further, there are ccongregation leaders who announce before the plate is passed “If you’re a visitor, this is not for you.  You’re our guest; just send it on.”  This reinforces the subliminal sense that the Sunday offering is a tax imposed to punish the members who didn’t cough up enough during the budget drive, apparently all of us who attend regularly.

Finally, all Unitarian Universalist congregations budget some level of support from fund-raisers and other gifts above and beyond pledge income, most frequently including an increment from Sunday plate collections.  This can confirm our self-talk narrative that “Folks around here are not very generous.  They don’t pledge nearly enough to support our programs — but I’m not about to do it all myself.”

All our self-talk on the subject slips past the most important aspect of the Sunday collection:  It’s Not About the Money.  Well, it is.  But more so, it isn’t.

So, what’s it all about?

When we worship together we are learning, remembering again what about our life is important. Much of our worship learning comes out of our sacraments and rituals.  We are practicing being “in the present” and taking personal oaths.  We are aspiring to be even more the kind of person we think we can be, and learning that that person is right there before us, within our reach.  We worship to practice reaching.  (And no one, I daresay, visits a new congregation hoping to be told they are excused this morning from reaching for their better selves.)

We include a request for gifts in worship because all of us, back into the Mists of Time, have felt the impulse to be helpful to others.  But we balance that against the need/desire to take care of ourselves.  And, for most of us, the Self comes first.  Part of the worship practice is simply to remember that others need to be cared for just as we sometimes need to be cared for, and the taking of a collection is the community’s vehicle for delivering that reminder.

Passing the plate is *just* a ritual.  The ritual reminds us that we always have the ability, even with pocket change, to help others.  It’s not about the church needing more money.  It is not particularly about an amount of money.  But the ritual is emphatically about putting money in the plate.  Passing the plate is about what we need — affirming that we live an abundant life.  And for those who have been unresponsive in the past we want to promote new self-talk as the plate comes nearer.  How can we do this?

Many churches have taken up a Share the Plate program, deciding that some portion of the collection will be designated specifically for causes and people outside the immediate church community.  The church decides that part of every worship collection will be given away: say, one-quarter, one half, or even all.  In some churches the gift is limited to one Sunday each month, but is the entire collection.  In any case the self-talk previously described loses traction.  We are asked to respond to a cause beyond our own congregation, its woes and our story about our place in them.


My own preference is to give away a smaller portion if necessary, but out of every collection; this seems to me a surer way of limiting the opportunities to dwell in scarcity while we worship.  In any case most churches that have tried sharing their plate collection have not stopped.  They report no diminishment in their own income, and frequently an increase.  This is the experience reported by Rev. Neal Jones in this space last month ( ) in support of his contention that congregations which practice abundance experience abundance.

Another possible way your congregation can manifest a generous countenance is, for example, during social hour after the service.  Is there a basket near the coffee urn where people are expected to place a donation for their coffee?  Get rid of it.  If your church is like mine you pick up a tenth of one percent of the total church revenue for the year from that basket.  One additional pledge would equal three or four years of take from the coffee basket.  Instead, try putting up a little sign saying something like:



We happily cover the costs of our Social Hour out of your generous contributions during worship.  Thank you.

This is a way for the congregation to openly celebrate its generous, attractive spirit.  It undercuts the story, above, that this church “always wants more of my money.”  At the same time it suggests yet another reason for all worshipers to think about dropping something into the plate every week while also taking away a reason for holding back (“for the coffee basket”).

Third, consider the attitude your congregation manifests when charging members for programs and services.  While I am sympathetic to the reality that churches need to raise enough money to cover their costs, I am less inclined to the notion that every cost which can be separately identified and assigned to a sub-group should be.  I was once a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation which decided that people could pick up their own newsletter copies in the church lobby on Sunday morning; if they wanted them mailed there would be a fee to cover postage.  The same office administrator proposed that members pay for the church directory — “enough to cover copying costs”.

These are extreme examples I hope, but they highlight the point.  When we join a church we expect to enjoy core services in return for our fair pledge.  The problem is in agreeing what the core consists of.  A church thriving with an attitude of abundance will look for ways to expand its definition of core programs and services; the congregation dwelling in scarcity finds it necessary to charge extra fees.  It’s simply not worth giving up an abundant spirit to chase even a few hundred dollars.[i]   A church with a countenance of abundance holds itself freely open to all — while openly displaying its desire to have all fully embrace its abundant life, including, of course, embracing abundant financial support.

[i] Alternatively, some churches find that by charging a modest fee for programs they induce a higher commitment to attendance; I suspect there is truth in this observation and recognize that some programs by their nature are more successful when attendance and participation are highly predictable.


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*K. Peter Henrickson lives in Vancouver, WA has served the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and its Pacific Northwest District for over 30 years.  Peter served two separate terms as district treasurer for a total of 15 years.  During that period, he began consulting with congregations on general financial management issues.  With the learnings from those consulting jobs, Peter put together several presentations for both district meetings and the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly.  And the material from those workshops grew into a book, Church Financial Management, which is now available through Amazon.   Peter has served on the Board of Eliot Institute and was Treasurer for a total of about ten years and has served as the UUA’s District Compensation Consultant since 2005.  Peter can be contact directly at:    (360) 608-8571

Ideas for Raising Stewardship Awareness in Your Congregation

Giving Speaks is pleased to share this guest blog post by  Rev. Dr. Daniel O’Connell*

The participants of the UU Stewardship Lab (Facebook group) were asked for their topic suggestions for a stewardship essentials workshop that may be offered at a future denominational event, Rev. Daniel O’Connell quickly responded with his suggested workshop theme

“Don’t Miss Stewardship Workshop:  You will learn about at least 3 new ideas to increase stewardship consciousness at your church.”

Then Daniel generated a few ideas to get our creative stewardship juices flowing….

Ideas for Raising Stewardship Awareness in Your Congregation

Holiday Wish List

Have 3 outside-the-budget items you want to finance. Not 2, not 4, but 3. Total cost: $10,000 (your dollar amount will vary with your congregation’s size). One item should be less than $2,000. One item should be no more than $6,000. One item should be a no-brainer (We need a defibrillator AED). One item should be immediately noticeable by anyone (new tables & chairs for the fellowship hall). Publicize the list (with pictures or drawings), put up a poster. The 3rd item could be priced between the first two, and be something you really need (faster church internet connection) that otherwise might be difficult to raise money for. Let people know the goal is $10,000, and when we get there, we’ll acquire all three things. Give periodic updates. Start mid-November and finish by the end of December.

Leadership Funding for Special Projects

Imagine your congregation would like an additional $20,000 to supplement your half million dollar budget this year.  The Senior Minister goes to the board with a pledge for $1,000, with a request for the Board members to collectively to triple that amount. On the following Sunday, it will be announced that $4,000 has been raised toward the $20,000. Leadership gifts are important. It shows the leadership is serious.

Clear Steps to Stewardship

The congregation leaders must cast a vision for a clear, step-by step path to a sense of stewardship with deep values and intention. It goes like this: become a first time giver. Then, become a regular giver. Then become an automatic payment giver.  Then, a percentage giver.  Each year increase that percentage until you get to 5%. Anything over that, we’ll call an “extravagant giver.”  The congregation leaders and senior minister should exemplify this level of personal stewardship and let the congregation know the level of their financial commitment.

Going all the Way with Percentage Giving

Did you get a year-end bonus? A teacher merit bonus? Make some money off your garage sale? Give 5% to church.  Every time. Make it a spiritual practice. Honor those who make this commitment.

Include the minister’s and other lay leader’s journey to becoming a percentage giver as part of canvass testimonials or as a regular newsletter feature. How they went from zero to 5%, and why they did it.

Generational Giving

Maybe once a year (maybe less) remind people that parents can give their children tax-free gifts of up to $13,000 (each parent) without triggering IRS Gift tax form 709.  So, if you have 30-50 year olds in your congregation, have them tell their parents about this. Chances are your members would rather have the money now than after their parents have passed on.  If they do get such a gift, encourage them to give 5% of that gift to the church.

Reverse Offering

This is designed to move away from scarcity consciousness toward abundance.  Take $1,000 in $50 dollar bills and put them in 20 different envelopes with an index card.  The index card says that they have to spend this on a social justice project, and write a one-page history of what they did with the money and how they feel now. Give a few examples:  the money was spent on postage for solicitation letters for a special charity or $50 of postage brought in $2,000 of gifts. It doesn’t benefit the church directly, but imagine 10 really good stories out of the 20.  Stories about how the power of creativity and ingenuity led to unexpected benefits for strangers in need.


Get an iPad 3 or big screen TV cheap.  Sell tickets over two weeks, do the big reveal at coffee hour.  Do this a couple of times per year. This builds excitement.

Flattening the Pledging Curve

Encourage people to sign up for auto-paying their pledge and let them know how this helps to smooth out the annual income curve while sustaining the congregation’s financial picture.

Why Girl Scout Cookies Are Good For You

Some people frown on the sale of Girl Scout cookies in the fellowship hall. Put as many Girl Scouts as want to do this at the same table. It is very meaningful for the girls, the adults like the cookies, and it builds abundance consciousness and stewardship into everyone.

Multiplying your Justice Impact

Sharing the offering with other charitable organizations or community partners can often double plate income and dramatically increases the amount of money your congregation will give away to other charities.  Another benefit many congregations with offering give-away programs experience is an increase in overall giving to the congregation.  People feel good about making a difference with their giving!

Put it in Writing

People are more apt to fulfill a pledge to annual giving than not.  That is why asking all members and friends of the congregation to fill out a pledge form, even those who say they cannot give anything that year to write ‘zero’ down on their pledge and turn it in.  Being intentional about one’s annual giving is a good habit to get into, even in the challenging years.

Rewarding Good Stewardship

A year ago, we sent out a form letter at the end of the canvass thanking people for pledging. This does not recognize good behavior! This last year, as Senior Minister, I sent a personal letter to everyone who made a pledge increase.  I sent another to everyone who made a pledge for the first time.  I did so as soon as we got their pledge in.  I got a note from someone saying they’d been pledging for 20 years and this was the first time they got a letter from the minister thanking them for it. Needless to say, I’m doing that again this year.

Assume Insufficient Motivation Rather Than Insufficient Funds

Are your congregation’s lay leaders are up for the annual financial challenge?   Whether that’s a canvass increase,  special project, or whatever.  When people hint around they don’t have the money, it may be due to insufficient motivation rather than insufficient funds. Of course, sometimes it is about money, but many times it was because the funding idea was not sufficiently attractive. So, it may be time to postpone or shelve an idea or try other ones, instead of giving up altogether.

Alternatives to the Traditional Canvass

Some congregations are doing away with the traditional canvass. They assume you’ll pledge this year what you pledged last year, and they send you a letter to that effect.  Others canvass only a percentage of the congregation: maybe 1/3 of the top half, with a different group every year, restarting the cycle again in the 4th year.


*The Rev. Dr. Daniel O’Connell serves as the Senior Minister for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Texas (, which is one of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s 10+ year Honor Congregations for their generous financial support of their wider faith community. ( )

Daniel O’Connell grew up Unitarian Universalist in suburban Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C. He was active in the youth movement (LRY in the late 1970s) and in the emergent Young Adult movement (UUYAN), both at the regional and national levels before attending seminary in 1992.  He has served congregations in Connecticut, regional and national level both in the UU Ministers Association and with the UUA on district boards during most of the last 15 years.  Daniel can be contacted directly at:

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