I could feel my eyebrow itching to raise as the non-profit director described sending out an appeal letter to congregations on their mailing list who hadn’t given in awhile. It was the middle of Lent. I am a regular supporter, not the target audience. But I have been on the receiving end of those mailings many times, to a church address. And I have recycled some immediately.
I had so much advice, both in the moment and afterward! While a “tips and best practices” sheet seems woefully inadequate, it is a starting point. Smaller non-profits cannot afford to rely on supporters finding them, as those like Habitat for Humanity can perhaps rely on their own reputation to draw new people or congregations into support. And those organization with faith roots certainly could dove-tail with a congregation’s mission. So here as a gift, is some direction from one who knows what it is like to be approached, especially in the church office.
1. Timing Matters
There are rhythms to the life of the Church. In churches that follow a liturgical calendar (mostly mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics) there are seasons of preparation: Advent (before Christmas) and Lent (before Easter). I will ignore you and your organization during these times. If you call me during Holy Week, I will not only ignore you, but probably form a bad attitude towards you in general! For churches of any stripe, the school year also sets a rhythm, with a launch in the fall and anticipated lighter engagement in the summer (except sometimes in youth ministry). Summer may be a more difficult time to reach church leaders, but when you do, we are more likely to take a meeting or phone call. Spring (post-Easter) and mid-autumn are your prime time for planning ahead.
By all means, worship with us. But do not attend worship in order to try to talk with the pastor about your initiative afterward. Instead what could cross your lips is something like, “I wanted to experience the congregation for myself and will be e-mailing you information about our organization’s mission later this week.” If the pastor appears to be in her 50’s or younger, please e-mail your literature. Our desks are cluttered enough with brochures already.
2. Provide Ready-To-Use, But Adaptable Programs and Marketing
You have the best chance of holding our attention with:
- a pithy, meaningful elevator speech, clear about how your organization’s mission aligns with that of the congregation (we put our mission and vision statements on our websites or newsletters, so do your research)
- specific, engaging activities that could be handed off to volunteers and
- incentives for positive PR within and outside of the congregation
Easily-adapted projects and promotional materials tell a church leader that you value their time and have thought about stream-lining their efforts. For example:
a. Make educational materials available online in a way that can be edited.
b. Provide preaching illustrations that tie to specific Scriptures
c. Offer guides for talking about your programs with youth, children and elders
Congregations of any size may be looking for tangible activities, especially for teens, young adults or families with children to physically do together. Tying quilts, packing health kits, assembling backpacks with specific school supplies make us feel good (even though we may know that giving money is more effective). This is not always practical, especially for development work overseas, but I am simply naming the self-interest of congregational leaders. We know that it will stick with people longer if we do something physical (but we are likely to be choosy about when and where and age appropriateness).
You will need to contend with committees. A group of committed people (remember they are mostly volunteers) who form the “outreach” or “missions” committee may be your best way of gaining a foot-hold in the congregation’s life. Sometimes, however, as a pastor I was pleased to hand things I didn’t care about off to a committee because I suspected it would get lost. Make sure you have a contact who is on the payroll, in addition to a committee.
Once you’re in, you might inquire about designated funds. We all know that volunteerism is great, but (ahem) you are actually seeking funding. Many congregations have designated funds, memorials or endowments whose interest must be given away according to some specifications your organization might actually meet. Hallelujah!
3. Distinguish Your Values
I wish this was more important than ready-to-use programs, but alas it might not be. There is, however a growing awareness of the inappropriateness of some organizations’ approaches to service, so this discussion does matter to many church leaders. For example, if your organization provides a less religiously coercive approach to meeting basic needs, or invests in development rather than charity that creates dependency, I am all ears. I am more likely to put the effort into replacing something we’ve “always done” if I can clearly express why the new organization better lives out our religious commitments.
But my best advice, you’ll need to value enough to pay for. If you want access to congregations, you need to value those who can help you to understand and adjust to a world we know very well. You will need a champion in any congregation you want to draw into long-term relationship, who feels valued and heard and as if your values align with hers. She might even be able to connect you with other organizations such as their affiliated synod/diocese, universities, or seminaries. Congregations have a lot to give in relationship with faith-related non-profit organizations, but you need to know how to ask.