Confessions of a Seasoned Missions Fundraiser
by Bill Dillon
The right perspectives on fundraising that counter thirteen common misconceptions.
When I first began the ministry of Inner City Impact in Chicago, I woke up one day to realize that if my ministry was to successfully function with proper funding, I would have to raise the funds. What a rude awakening and a scary thought! But through more than forty years of fundraising, I have learned some valuable lessons, created a workable philosophy, and identified practical principles that have enhanced my ministry as a fundraiser—which, I have learned, is really more about the people than the money. Let me share the right perspectives that countered thirteen common misconceptions I faced.
1. Do not take the giving decision away from your prospects and donors. In my early practice, I made decisions for prospects and donors. In some cases, I never gave them a chance to know of my vision because I failed to add them to my prospect list of people to approach. In other cases, they made the list but I decided that they could not afford to give a lot so I simply asked low. In doing so, I took the decision away from them for how they wanted to give. At first, I was very disappointed because those whom I thought would come alongside chose not to. However, those whom I had put out of my mind as potential donors came through.
2. Persistence makes a difference. I tended to give up on people too easily. I learned that just because a donor’s initial response produced a small gift didn’t mean there wasn’t hope that future gifts might be larger. As an example, after numerous follow-up phone calls to a potential donor, my secretary announced that this couple wanted to see me. The husband had told his wife that he was either going to come down and see my ministry for himself, or tell me to stop calling him. He toured our facility, looked into the eyes of our missionary staff, and was sold. He made a significant gift.
3. Challenge people, ask high, and expand their vision. I often asked far too low. And if you do not ask at all, the answer will always be no. As I work with major donors, I have discovered that their first gift is often small. They want to see if you appreciate the gift and if their gift has made a difference. Just because they give at a lower level does not mean they cannot be challenged to give more later.
4. Focus on vision, not need. Often, I was so concerned about my financial needs that this became my focus as I asked for funds. I soon realized that people were motivated more by my vision for the ministry than how they could financially help achieve that vision. It’s easy for missionaries and church planters to focus on their need for children’s education, the latest and greatest technology, funds for a new car, retirement, etc. None of those things motivate most people. Potential donors want to know specifically what your vision is and how their money will advance the Lord’s work.
5. Think long-range, not short-range. There were some unfortunate cases where I tried to rush the fundraising process and lost the relationship. If only I had been patient and thought about long-range partnership instead of short-range return. In my more than forty years of fundraising, I’ve come to call it “People Raising” instead, because supporting a ministry is all about relationships. People give to people whom they know, trust, and care for. When meeting someone for the first time, you are at the beginning of the process. The challenge is to build a relationship and gain their trust. And that takes time.
6. Your donors have a greater need to give than you have to receive. I was so focused on my need to receive money that I failed to realize that it was more important that they be given the great opportunity to invest in the Lord’s work. To give is a privilege, but I was asking for a favor. Acts 20:35 says, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Your prospects and donors need to be your focus. Give as many people as possible the opportunity to engage in your vision, in your ministry. Once connected to your organization financially, they will have great joy in participating.
7. The Lord will bring in the funds. I thought it all depended upon me. If I produced the time and effort, the funds would roll in. I failed to realize that the Lord was working behind the scenes. Even when my efforts seemed meager, he was at work. The Lord is in the business of translating his vision and his agenda in the hearts of his people. Our job is to move forward in faith expecting his provision. Our role is to share that vision and ask people to partner with us financially.
8. Focus on effectiveness, not mere efficiency. In the early days I cranked out letters and had numerous church meetings. I certainly got the message out, but I raised little funds. I soon discovered that I needed to build relationships with people and sit down and ask for their gift. We live in an age where we can get information out very rapidly to many people. This may seem like a great strategy, but there’s also a downside. There’s no substitute for sitting down with people one on one, face to face. It pays huge dividends.
9. Follow up, follow up, follow up. I assumed that after making the “ask” for funds that the prospect or donor would get back to me. Instead, I needed to control the follow up. This is what I call the 48-hour rule. When a person indicates he or she wants to pray about my request, I ask if I can call him or her in two days.
10. Recognize that all donors are not wired to give systematically. It would have been nice if every person gave on a regular monthly basis so that I could easily project the funds coming in. But some people love to respond to special needs and give only occasionally. Some people will take my envelope and put it with their bills to systematically send a gift; others respond as the Spirit leads. We cannot expect all people to conform to a one-size-fits-all method.
11. Keep cultivating your donors. Getting the gift was just the beginning. I had to cultivate, thank, update, and stay involved and in touch. In this day and age, there are so many places for people to give. I have to keep them engaged on my team. I love to stay in contact with people and want them to sense my love and appreciation. Oftentimes, I call just to bring them up to date. Those simple contact points can cement our relationship.
12. Prayer is a two-way street. At first I thought prayer was all about me and my ministry, but I soon realized my prospects and donors had needs that required my prayer on their behalf. I count it a privilege to pray for my donors. They are integral to our ministry, and I try to be intentional about finding ways to minister to them.
13. Don’t expect everyone to fall in love with your vision. I was working with inner-city kids—who wouldn’t lend their support? But donors have preferences when it comes to giving.
When I began the ministry of Inner City Impact, we had no money, staff, or building. We literally started on a sidewalk. I sold pots and pans to earn a living, but I knew God had a call on my life and we needed to reach out to these kids. You can see from my early mistakes and misconceptions that fundraising does not come naturally. The good news is that it can be learned and applied, and through it, God is faithful to bring together the generosity of others to bring about his good work.
Bill Dillon is founder and executive director of Inner City Impact and the president of People Raising, an organization committed to training people on how to successfully raise funds. The new and expanded version of his book, People Raising (Moody Publishers, 2012), is available online at www.PeopleRaising.com.
EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 4, pp. 488-491. Copyright © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.