February may have been a chilly, snowy month for much of the country, but the job market sizzled. The economy added 295,000 new jobs, bringing unemployment to its lowest rate since 2008. Where the job market goes and the overall economy goes, philanthropy follows. In 2015, giving is a booming business. 

Yet, when it comes to giving to religious organizations, the news is less encouraging. Since the end of the Great Recession, overall philanthropic giving in the United States has grown by 12.3 percent while giving to religious organizations has declined by 2.4 percent, according to Giving USA, the annual survey of American philanthropy. Now, in 2013 – the last year for which we have reliable statistics – Americans gave $105 billion to religious organizations, accounting for 31 percent of all charitable giving. Those figures certainly represent a major slice of the charitable pie. But as recently as the 1980s, giving to religious organizations accounted for more than half of all donations. The shifting of American charitable dollars from religious institutions to other areas has been a gradual process – one that shows no signs of abating. 

We know all too well some of the reasons why: America is becoming an increasingly secular society and many young people today are exploring spirituality outside of traditional congregational structures. The 2014 General Social Survey, released in early March, showed that record low numbers of Americans attend church regularly, with just four in 10 attending services at least once a month, down roughly 10 percent from a decade ago. On the positive side, nearly 60 percent of Americans pray at least once a day, according to the survey. While there is a marked interest in personal spirituality, fewer Americans are interested in supporting religious institutions.
Despite the doom and gloom, congregations across the country are demonstrating enormous creativity, funding new building projects, incorporating technology into the worship experience, and creating new programs out in the community – meeting people of faith where they are. Americans are not rejecting faith but are reaching new understandings of the role that faith plays in their lives. Congregations that facilitate personal spirituality while helping to build community are findings ways to be successful. How are some congregations able to run against the wind and complete major fundraising campaigns? Here are five ways your congregation can buck some of these downward trends:

   1. Create a Development Committee

It may sound simple, but creating a volunteer body dedicated to raising funds can make a world of difference. Your members have talents, experience, and contacts. Most of all, they provide valuable insight to clergy and professional staff about the kinds of messaging that will inspire members to give. By creating a committee dedicated to the fundraising agenda, a congregation can ensure that development remains a regular part of congregational operations. And an official committee can help establish policies that will guide fundraising efforts.

    2. Involve the Clergy

Most of the time, a member of the clergy is the best person to articulate a faith community’s mission, speak to the theological underpinnings of giving, and ask parishioners to be generous. Too often, development work – if it is taking place – is left to support staff or one or two volunteers. A member of the clergy can’t do it alone, but he or she must be involved. Speaking from the pulpit about giving is important, but it is not enough. A clergy may be most effective in private meetings, in which he or she can cite a specific number. Recently, WHYY the local NPR affiliate in Philadelphia, ran an in-depth story about efforts to save a historic South Philadelphia Church. Despite a huge effort on the part of many people, fundraising didn’t really take off until the arrival of Pastor Wilbur Winborne. According to the piece, the pastor convinced the congregation to pay for $50,000 worth of needed roof work. In fundraising campaigns, the words and deeds of religious leaders carry enormous weight.

    3. Ask

It may be a cliché but it is true: You won’t receive if you don’t ask. Ask often and use multiple platforms. Houses of worship need to create effective communications programs about fundraising initiatives that make people aware of the needs. Outside of weekly offerings, churches have been historically very reluctant to ask for big gifts. Discuss fundraising programs in newsletters, email, social media and yes, from the pulpit.

    4. Create Gift Categories

Most people give in part because, on some level, they are hoping to be recognized. No house of worship can discount the role that ego plays in shaping gifts. Done in an honest and ethical fashion, houses of worship can harness the desire of philanthropists for public recognition toward a sacred purpose. Create gift recognition categories. Publish the names of individuals who have made major gifts. Start planned giving programs and build legacy societies.

    5. Research

Perhaps there is no more important ingredient to any fundraising campaign than donor research. What is the gift capacity of your members and supporters? What other kinds of organizations have your members supported and in what amount? What is important to them? A great deal can and should be learned before ever approaching a member for a major gift. Of course, there’s a lot of information available on Google. But your congregation can learn even more by investing in wealth screening services or software. A variety of options and price points are available.

To speak to America’s evolving spiritual needs, our houses of worship have to evolve as well. Creating welcoming spaces, building connection, helping people engage in a more personalized form of faith – all of these things take resources. Raising needed funds for our houses of worship and the programs and services they run is a vital step for securing the health of spiritual communities for decades to come. Since it won’t be easy let’s get started right away.