Donor Fatigue

Category - Religion
by Bob Wolfe on April 20th, 2015

The congregation begins to shift uncomfortably. Eyes roam around to whomever the special “guest speaker” is going to be instead of the pastor. Or maybe it will be the pastor, once the special slide presentation or video is cued-up. Either way, once the talking starts, some of the congregants will wonder what the sermon might have been this week, considering that nuanced Gospel they just heard. Others will see how artfully (plausibly) the sermon can be woven together with a reminder about stewardship and the future. Still others will fumble for a wallet, checkbook or digital device in anticipation of the “ask” and “getting it over with,” and a fair portion may choose this opportunity to glaze over…or begin thinking about that list of weekend chores.

Welcome to Donor Fatigue.

There’s no question in thousands of churches in America, many of whose congregations struggle to maintain a fraction of their earlier, historical size, that the faithful periodically go through bouts of donor fatigue. “Wait a minute,” they say, “Didn’t we just give to a campaign like that?!”

The level of giving in churches varies significantly, of course. I’ve seen churches with 100-acre campuses and thousands of congregants, who have built impressive physical plants while nourishing extensive ministries in their communities and beyond. I’ve seen others that scrape by. But at either end of the scale, congregants are looking for vision and fiscal responsibility and a sensitivity to other “wallet pressures.”

It reminds of me of something that happens every so many years in our school district. There will be a campaign for new buildings or infrastructure.  Then there will be a separate campaign for “operating costs,” because the law states we can use the capital campaign funds for operations. Then, if that second campaign fails (say, the levy doesn’t pass), immediately we’ll hear stories of this or that favorite teacher or program or sport that can’t be retained. And six months to a year later, there will be yet another campaign – sometimes positioned as an “emergency” campaign – for operating expenses. Often these emergency campaigns occur in the spring, out of the normal election cycle, heightening their “emergency” tonality. There is a theory in campaign strategy: That is, in typical November election cycles, levies, propositions and candidates are typically all on the ballot. Not only are voters generally more “dialed-in” to election issues (and candidates) in the November cycle than they are in springtime, but because of that heightened awareness of a wide range of voting issues, campaign funding is generally more balanced. In special elections, it is the group pushing for the “affirmative” (pro-levy, pro-capital campaign) that is often better organized and funded. Groups in the negative or “dissenting” camp typically find themselves scrambling to say “Whoa! Stop! No, we don’t need that!” Thus, most well-intended, well-crafted affirmative campaigns carry…especially when all the dissenters can muster is not so much an alternate new idea, but simply a “no.”

Anyway, as a voter, I feel like saying (I know I sound like a cranky old codger when I do, but I do): “You didn’t listen to me when I said “no” to your multi-million dollar building campaign that just HAD to have full air conditioning, plasma screens throughout the school, a notebook computer for every kid, or what have you. I didn’t have many of these things when I was a kid…and I’ll bet the kids of our generation did as well academically as the kids of today.”  Even beyond that scolding, what I really want to say as a voter is, “Look, I have ONE wallet. I don’t have a wallet for building expenses, another for operating expenses, still another for emergency expenses, and so forth.”

This is a difficult thing to write about because I’ve been on both sides of the issue. I know the challenges good people face in securing or maintaining funding for important, worthy projects. But I also know that there are many, many examples where voters – and in our church communities, congregants – feel as if the train has already left the station on some expensive enterprise. Or that life in the community means sitting through one “ask” after another. This can wear on people.

About 15 years ago, there was a big push at an area church to build a new “connector” facility between the church and school. There were many reasons given for why the $2 million project was justified: people were spending money renting gymnasium space elsewhere; they didn’t have a place for large gatherings; they could rent such a large space for things like wedding receptions; they weren’t “competitive” as a school without a computer lab and new library; and so forth and so on. These were all reasonable concerns, and the “pro-connector” advocates did a very good job convincing the church council and some, but not all, of the members of the church. (The initiative was part of a larger strategic planning effort at the time that involved town hall meetings, surveys, balloting and such.) When all was said and done, the initiative “passed,” the church created a capital campaign, took a significant loan on the remaining balance, and work began on what turned into a $2.3 million project.

That was then. This is now. The school is closed. The library and computer lab scarcely used. The building hosts some events (mostly sporting) and the parish has shrunk significantly. The story is not unique.

What happened? Was this a period of rogue church leadership? Aggressive congregants doing a little empire-building? Was money to easy to come by (particularly before, but not after, 2008)?  Were well-meaning congregants misled or perhaps too easily caught up in holding onto a church history and culture that was changing? If I had to Monday-morning quarterback the whole thing, I’d say it came down to birth rates and population trends. Oh, and perhaps the inability to articulate a differentiated value to life in that church and school.

The first thing – birth rates – is part of that droll “demographic” stuff you hear about during election cycles, but frankly, it matters. Populations may grow in aggregate, but at the church level, things can change mightily. Look at the number of church steeples you can see within two miles of the downtown of any rust-belt city in America. These churches proliferated and grew within the last century, serving first the wave of immigrants that came ashore from 1900-1920 and then later, the enormous flood of baby-boomers.  A lot of cities have gotten smaller. Some have grown. The country has gotten less religious overall, however, so a lot of those steeples mark what once was.

This particular church in this example had been “aging” for several decades. Young families had migrated to wealthier neighborhoods. The principal channel for students for the school came from just a couple of more-affluent zip codes, which had public or private alternatives. Tuition at the school had risen – and while the cost of educating a student at the school was less than at its public-school counterparts – as my old boss used to tell me: “That’s great, but it don’t beat free.”  The value-proposition for the school was nebulous or poorly understood among its core constituents (even the pre-school was being used by only two families…even though it served 60).

The point is most churches don’t or can’t do this kind of due-diligence when planning larger campaigns. That’s not to say that campaign fundraising professionals can’t be hired or that church leaders and leading families won’t step up to endorse and implement a strategy that includes presentations, calls, meetings, and so forth. The key, in my opinion, however, is to show how past campaigns were wisely conducted and funds prudently used…and to make compelling cases based on research and data, not simply vision or fear. Congregants want their churches (and schools) to be successful, but they also need to know that their churches – while not “in business,” so to speak – are still subject to the forces of the market, and are still sensitive to how those forces impact people on an individual level.

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