The Biggest Mistake Churches Make When Trying To Raise Money

As a pastor, I know that I’m never going to get everything in my ministry right all of the time. I’m going to preach some sermons that, for whatever reason, fail to connect emotionally with my audience. I’m going to put together some volunteer teams that don’t stay the course. I’m going to start some ministries that don’t make. Over time, I’ve come to embrace these failures as the natural consequence of innovation. If I’m not failing at something, I’m probably in a creativity or comfortability rut. As a very successful friend of mine told me once: “Fail a lot. Fail quick. And fail cheap.”

Congregations can recover quickly from failed sermons and ministries. We can adjust, change a staff member, or try a new ministry strategy in a relatively short amount of time. However, there is one element of ministry leadership where we pastors simply cannot fail. What takes a congregation years to recover from in terms of emotional momentum? The answer is simple, and I have seen it too many times: a botched capital campaign.

One reason I am passionate about leading successful campaigns is that the cost of failure is so deep. Like a child scarred by being publicly humiliated, I have worked with congregations that have an “inferiority complex” as a result of past failures.

There are several factors that might lead to failure in a campaign. Popular failure factors include:

  • An “insider” mentality that refuses external help
  • Setting an unrealistic goal based on unmanaged expectations.
  • A lack of preparation

However, I want to focus on one common factor to a failed capital campaign: the reluctance of the pastor/campaign leadership to set a hard goal and go after it tastefully, strategically, and aggressively. In the simplest terms, the leader is afraid to aggressively raise an appropriate amount of money.

The campaign team must be committed to publicizing a monetary goal that they are certain represents a realistically aggressive target. In my campaigns, we often take 4-6 weeks of research, analysis, and conversations before arriving at that goal. But once we get there, we own it. Then we apply best professional fundraising practices to achieve it.

One of my catalysts to partner with several churches a year as a generosity consultant stems from my experience in a church located in a wealthy zip code who set a monetary goal of raising 3X annual operating income in a traditional capital campaign. This was pre-2008 when such multiples were not uncommon. However, rather than owning the goal and strategically working toward it by following best professional practices, the leadership just “slung” out the number to the entire congregation at once. Their rallying cry: “We will build what you give.”

That phrase still makes me wince.

“We will build what you give”: That mentality represents the opposite of owning the goal. It does not communicate a God-inspired vision that must be accomplished to propel God’s work forward. It is not giver-centric. It pitches the vision that should be owned by the pastor and the team back to the average giver who is not equipped or called to chart the overall course. As a result, that church raised 1X annual income, a terrible failure for their congregation.

How do we start calculating a reasonably aggressive goal?

  1. We begin with data analysis and comparisons to other churches.
  2. We analyze giving trends in the church’s zip code and surrounding area.
  3. We invite lay leaders in the church into the conversation and ask for feedback, helping them to own the creative process.

What eventually emerges is a hard and fast number. What we construct and apply is a pathway to get there. The real result, and the fun part, is watching God work in the lives of everyday people as they are invited into a special season of generosity.

That’s how vision gets done on the ground. May we execute faithfully.