Imagining Abundance: The transformative potential of Catholic fundraising
According to the teaching of the Gospel, we are not owners but rather administrators of the goods we possess: these, then, are not to be considered as our exclusive possession, but means through which the Lord calls each one of us to act as a steward of his providence for our neighbor.”
These words from Pope Benedict XVI’s Lenten message on charity and philanthropy remind us that we are all stewards of God’s creation, called to give and receive God’s blessings. Heeding the pope’s words and mindful of the responsibilities of our baptism, we must seek to be conscientious leaders of our Catholic faith community, using our resources in a holy and proper way.
Today, as Catholic institutions from hospitals to parochial schools face serious challenges to their financial health, the need for a distinctly Catholic approach to philanthropy is acute. I have been blessed to work my entire career in service to the church, both as a member of the Catholic philanthropic community and as a development director and adviser to Catholic institutions and charities. Catholic philanthropy and development are two sides of the same coin; when exercised with vision, faith, generosity of spirit and commitment to excellence, they can be catalysts for transformation. In my work in both fields, I have learned certain lessons about how to approach fundraising in a way that is consonant with the pope’s call to be proper stewards of God’s blessings. I share them here in the hope that they will be of value to Catholic leaders seeking to bring new vitality to their institutions.
Be worthy of generosity. The starting point for all successful Catholic development must be a passion for excellence. To achieve this high standard, an organization must have a well-defined mission and must be committed to exemplary standards and practices on every institutional level, especially in the management of human and financial resources. It is essential for church leaders, ordained and lay alike, to recognize that they themselves must strive to lead and manage impeccably. The church’s mission is too important to be entrusted to outdated standards or lackluster vision.
Furthermore, stewardship is more than just the proper care of what has been entrusted to us; it is also the recognition of and care for the possibilities at hand. Our response to that potential, whether to ignore it or bring it to fruition, is the measure of our stewardship.
Money follows mission. How well is the mission understood, articulated, advanced and accomplished? Fundraising at its best is a byproduct of an organization’s creativity, vitality and vision. Too often Catholic organizations use a lack of financial resources or the fact that something “isn’t in the budget” as an excuse to do nothing. Yet waiting for financial resources before carrying out an organization’s mission is unnecessarily constraining. Reverse those priorities, understand mission as central to your organization’s success, and witness the generosity and financial commitment that follows.
The Catholic nonprofit sector can be divided into those who are trapped in a maintenance mindset, tantamount to treading water for survival, and those who live and breathe mission. Avoid the stultifying seduction of maintenance; emphasize mission. As people of faith we are called to be courageous, prophetic, confident and faithful. We are called to live in a world of possibility, to think big and to never give up.
Donors are subjects, not objects. Donor prospects, whether individuals or institutions, are not objects from which to try to extract as much money as possible as quickly as possible. That false understanding contributes to the notion that development is manipulative, coercive, underhanded work, rather than an invaluable ministry. Consider the language used in talk of fundraising: “Hit him up for money.” “Put the squeeze on her.” “Twist his arm.” “Seal the deal.” This is a language of violation, not befitting the fundamental Catholic understanding of the dignity of the human person. All people search for meaning and desire to be part of something life-giving and consequential, and most want to contribute in deeply meaningful ways.
Catholic leaders seeking to raise money must also recognize and resolve any theological ambivalence they might have about wealth. Be wary of the temptation to disparage the wealth or financial decisions of prospective donors. It is often demanding and difficult to distribute wealth in a judicious and effective manner. It is grossly presumptuous to believe that “he doesn’t know what to do with his money!” Catholics have risen to levels of enormous affluence and influence in the United States, especially over the last five decades. Increasingly, those who donate are sophisticated and strategic in the choices they make, as they seek to maximize the impact of their grant dollars. They look at philanthropy as an investment and expect a return on it. Far more important than receiving public recognition for their gift is their desire to enhance the ability of the recipient institution to execute and fulfill its mission. Fundraising is about relationships, and healthy relationships are built on trust and mutual respect. Trust and respect are engendered when excellence is the aspiration for all.
Imagine abundance. Nothing succeeds like success. There is always more to be given and received. Confidence is demanded by the mission of the organizations being represented, provided the mission is sound and the management is exemplary. If there is no confidence in the importance of the mission, one fails to meet the first maxim of successful development: be worthy of generosity.
From a Catholic perspective, development is not a zero-sum game. A gift for one organization should not be seen as a loss for another. Such an approach to fundraising is inappropriate for people of faith, who properly understand that the church’s mission is fulfilled by a variety of worthy institutions. Besides, it is best to encourage donors to give to those activities they care most passionately about.
Be positive.The most difficult obstacle to faith-filled development is cynicism and negativity. A great leader and successful development director lives in a world of possibility. My favorite definition of a cynic is one who has given up but not yet shut up. Resist negativity and cynicism in all its insidious forms. In fact, learn to recognize it in others as a sign that you are onto something of consequence, that your positive and hopeful outlook is rattling the cages of those who would rather resist any form of change. Learn to proclaim the good news of your organization and how it is making a measurable difference in the world. Believe that people want to hear good news and to be part of something life-giving, successful and, yes, holy. And remember that the person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it!
It’s all about joy Be joyful. Once development is understood as a ministry, priests, religious and laypeople can approach what they might have previously thought of as distasteful work and “a necessary evil” as an opportunity for mutual conversion of heart and mind. Grant maker and grant seeker are collaborators in a life-giving mission, rooted in faith, both seeking to use their resources to benefit others. This process brings meaning to the beneficiaries, to the donor and to those working in development. It affirms that the organization’s ministry matters and is making a measurable difference in the lives of others. So be expansive of spirit and magnanimous of heart. Care for the donor and take delight in the relationship. Evince a collaborative, communal, participatory and enthusiastic disposition. Advancing the mission of the church should not be a competition. Keep the big picture in mind, for the sake of what is in the donor’s best interest and in the best interest of the church’s larger mission. Remember that it can be done, and it can also be fun. And celebrate all advancements toward the goal.
When I was a director of development, a donor once called me on the eve of my board meeting. I had been preparing my oral report to the board, praying for the words to communicate the significant advancements in our various programs. My hope was to inspire confidence in the board that we were well on our way to being worthy of generosity, that money would follow mission. The donor’s call was an answer to prayer. He told me that he and his wife had been following the concerted expansion in activity and together they wanted to contribute $1 million to be used “however we saw best.” When I began to explain the extraordinary timing of his call and proceeded to thank him, he politely cut short my effusive gratitude and said something that will always remain with me: “You make it a joy to give.” I was struck by the sentiment, mindful that it was the energy and enthusiasm of every member of our organization that had made their gift possible.
Successful development/successful leadership. Exemplary fundraising is a prerequisite for successful nonprofit leadership. Look at an outstanding leader in the nonprofit sector—a university president, for example, or an executive director of an international aid organization—and you will find an impressive command and track record of fundraising. This is less because these executives are good fundraisers and more because they are good leaders. That is, they inspire confidence. They elevate the visibility and importance of their institutions. They are mission-driven. They desire and demand excellence in every aspect of the institution they represent. They seek to involve and engage a panoply of beneficiaries and constituents. They hire smart, effective people—often with abilities they themselves do not have—to be part of a team. They are confident and positive. Where they see positive potential, they act with alacrity and tenacity to bring it to fulfillment.
Donors do not take risks on leadership. They follow the vibrancy—that is, they seek leaders who are passionate and trustworthy, people of conviction and vision. If donors are confident in an institution’s leadership, they will be willing to take risks on new initiatives and creative programs. If your programs are well thought out, and if transparency and accountability are a priority, donors will see that and make a commitment to your organization.
As Catholics, we are all called to attend to the larger mission of the church. At a time when Catholic institutions are still reeling from a loss of priests and religious, who have done so much to ensure the financial and spiritual stability of their organizations, it is essential that a new generation of Catholics find effective ways to spread the resources of the faithful. As the pope reminds us, we are called to administer the goods we possess, which are not “our exclusive possession.” Ultimately, development is about hope and trust in God’s providence, not for the sake of raising money or meeting income goals, but for the sake of the church’s myriad apostolates. May we all find ways to contribute to their future success.
From the archives, Francis J. Butler on "Raising Money for the Pope."