No. 8 Meaning-making: the neuroscience of pledging

At this point in autumn, many churches are about half way through their campaigns.  Many autumn pledge campaigns begin in mid-September (or at least my books suggest they do) and run for a solid eight weeks until the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving at which point it is time to end that concentration of your pledge campaign communications plan of direct mail to all members (one per week), emails (one per week), and Sunday announcements and bulletin inserts (one each per week.)  I know.  I can hear the sighs and feel the eye-rolls.  But the question is not “do I have time for all this” but rather “Do I want to raise money for mission and help people become great philanthropists …or not?” God connected, might we?


Last week we discussed “the dark side of the moon” – that syndrome of fear and dread which can so easily grip clergy, church staff and lay leaders who have worked so hard since February (please tell me you have been working on your campaigns since February!) on the campaign preparation, kick-off, mailings and the needful battery of communications. Since most families attend church once a month these days, they hear your pledge messages only twice!) Now it is time to connect and this connection is where most churches fail to raise their money.


The clergy and leaders are so squeamish about asking for money that they do not do that one thing – that one, ONLY, single thing which actually raises money – they sometimes do not move in closer and connect. They too often avoid connection.  And of course, the congregation (except for those lovelies who pledge early, easily and well) will also want to disconnect from clergy, stewardship staff and lay leaders because they are aware that they have been hearing about the need to make a pledge since May (and intensely since September) and yet, life is busy and fear has made resistance high; and so they have not yet sent in their pledge cards, even though we are at mid-October.  So they are in their own little shame-storm and seek the same disconnection from church leadership that church leadership seeks from the disappointment of congregants who have yet to make their pledge.  In short, it’s a perfect stewardship-storm.


The answer is this: Move in now and deeply!  Move towards your congregation person by person with a deep, broad, kind, firm smile and connect! There is nothing to be done about sullen, pathologically introverted, sad, wizened and grouchy clergy Bishops or lay leaders in stewardship – they are, sadly, bound to fail in stewardship work as also probably in ministry in general.  But for most clergy and lay leaders, a broad smile, an outstretched hand and the willingness to discuss difficult issues like money and mission-funding will connect you.  And with connection you can discuss the pledge directly but with a smile. But you must be direct.


I have seen clergy say “I can’t do a phone-a-thon, let the staff or vestry do it.” And then the staff revolt and refuse and the lay leaders drag their feet because- well- who wants to spend an evening making phone calls that congregants do not want to receive and leaving messages they do not want to hear?  And yet, in Lent, clergy and lay leaders will talk about sin and repentance with near pathological vigor.  Hmm. It makes one wonder.


So this author suggests that you have the phone-a-thons in late October and early November and have them with gusto.  I suggest all congregants receive a call (ok, message) in the last week of October and a second call (if they have not yet pledged) in the second week of November (3 weeks later and eight weeks after they were asked to pledge initially at the start of the campaign.)  These calls are not rude.  They are essential along with the communications of emails and direct mail which runs concurrently.  It is this kind of onslaught which gets the message of pledging into the minds of people whose lives are overwhelmed with marketing messages. They love the connection and in it, clergy also learn a lot about pastoral care needs. I also suggest a Spring phone-a-thon just to check in and say how much you love them.


In the end, you may disagree. And that’s fine. But ask yourself this question – Dr. Phil’s question – “Is what I am doing now – to raise money in my church – working?”


God sent “the Word” in human form to connect.  God could have just angrily stewed off at the other end of the cosmos, occasionally going berserk and reigning down fire in angry tirades like some teenager off their meds.  Well… like God did so often in the Hebrew Scriptures – to be honest. But instead God chose to connect with us by becoming a human even though God could see that the people to whom God sought real connection would strike back hard with a succor-punch like crucifixion.


If God can model and risk connection to raise mission, then might not we?

No. 7 The Dark-other-side of a Pledge Campaign; some encouragement


The middle of a pledge campaign, in a church or any nonprofit agency, is an emotionally challenging time.  It is what I often call “the other side” which is a reference to that uncomfortable time when a spaceship enters that part of the orbit of the moon when it finds itself on the other side of the moon – the dark side – a place in which communications with mission control is disrupted and everyone on board must brave the lonely cold and wait to emerge into the light beyond the dark side – on the other side of the backside of the moon.


The middle of a campaign is always uncomfortable.  Will we reach the goal or will we not?  Will those last pledges come in on time or will they not? Do people want to fund this budget, mission, project or not? The first gifts are the low-hanging fruit and easy to get confirmed giving an emotional boost to the first month.  They arrive fast and they inspire confidence.  But then there is this uncomfortable space in the middle in which there is “this dark side” during the second month (or year) when staff are exhausted but still have far to go and the second half of the pledges come in slowly, ponderously, like tired elephants at the end of a march; one big foot-bang at a time.


The dark side of a fundraising campaign – that middle bit of its calendar – can also be frightening to the fundraiser be they clergy in an annual pledge campaign or be they a non-profit executive leading a campaign to end homelessness like the one I find myself managing today. It can be a very lonely time when volunteers and staff shrug their shoulders and look at you, the leader, for some hope.


As I write this article I am sitting in the light of the setting moon – my favorite time of day which is why my pottery studio is called “Setting Moon Pottery.”  The land of this farm in New Mexico stretches out before me like a green, soothing leg-blanket in every direction – apples to the West, peach trees to the East, alfalfa to the North and South and that bright, white, bright spotlight of a moon is making its way to the horizon with a musical soundtrack of roosters – hundreds of roosters, in every direction, singing their Te Deum- all in invitation of the sun – a new day.


What a church or no-profit fundraiser does is raise money.  What a person being asked for a pledge does is consider their stewardship. These two things happen concurrently.  That is how it works today and that is how it worked two thousand years ago as temples, synagogues and schools were being built with contributions, all arriving one day at a time.


So what do we do while “on the dark side of a fundraising campaign?” We welcome the setting of the moon.  We celebrate the rising of the sun.  A new day.  And we get back to work.  We keep going and wait for the sunlight to re-appear. We pull out those donor lists and go over them again with a red pen… Who needs a call?…Who needs a note?…who needs a visit from a person who has already pledged?”


You see, people love to give to a worthy project – they are thrilled to have made the gift…on the other side of their decision.  But they are busy and distracted and then also, they can get gripped with fear on the early side – when they are making the decision.  “Will I need this money?” they ask themselves in the early morning darkness.  “What if I need this money?” they ponder as their pen hovers tremulously over their pledge card.  But then they move past their fears and so must the fundraisers.  We just do what we always do when we are in a state of fear.  We take another step into another day and pray like hell.


People have been doing this for thousands of years. Here is a reminder that all will be well –taken from the dedication of my next book on asking for gifts, out in November and found at


This book is dedicated to the millions of people in the course history who have summoned up the courage to ask for a major gift from another person. 


From the first cave lent to a stranger running from a Saber-toothed tiger

to the jars given to hold the dead sea scrolls;

from the use of a stable behind an inn for a pregnant traveler

to the cave donated for the grave of a crucified savior;

from the request of a boy with five loaves of bread and two fish

to the request of a fortune from a rich young ruler;

from the jewels and authority given by an emperor and his mother

to the land given for the first hospitals and monasteries;

from the food given to a saint who fed the poor,

to the cathedrals and furnishings given by wealthy merchants;

from royal grants to hospitals to ten dollars donated from a child’s allowance,

from a dowager’s bequest to a pensioner’s


in time of war and times of peace,

in the Great Depression and the Great Awakening,

from the wall given in Capernaum by the Zebedee Family ,

to the Hebrew Temple walls erected by the Anitpater Family;


in every conceivable time of blessing, creation, joy and crisis

good people have asked for major gifts and other good people have discerned an answer. “


No. 1: Facing Fear in Church Fundraising

“I keep putting the pledge campaign off because it scares me.”

This was an opening comment by a seasoned rector recently during a workshop I was presenting on fearless church fundraising.  It was honest.  It was vulnerable. And it was a place to start for both of us.

‘I have been a fundraiser for 35 years and a priest for 16 and I still get anxious when I begin a campaign.  Let’s talk over a beer.” Was my response.  It ended well for the Rector.

Fear is the biggest barrier both to raising money and to giving it.  I often say that “People will give to your church’s mission if you help them by using effective practices. People are not greedy, they are frightened by what they see on TV, and their materialism is simply the way they choose to scream.”

Clergy and lay leaders too often see the pledge campaign as a logistical initiative with spiritual implications and indeed it is, but even more is the pledge campaign a spiritual initiative with logistical implications.  Either way, we fail when we do one well and neglect the other.  If you preach stunning sermons of stewardship and giving but employ an un-useable pledge card then you will fail as surely as if you have the tools of a university development office but preach badly about a flaccid, dull keep-the-lights-on mission.

Effective church fundraising, especially in the pledge campaign, must include some basic components and when you have them, your fears will melt away:

  1. The mission of the church needs to deserve philanthropic investment and your congregation needs to have and employ daily spiritual practices.
  2. The parish then needs to be able to explain why giving to the church is a good investment of philanthropy
  3. The leadership need to get their act together about their own feelings about money
  4. The church’s financial development program needs to be just that…a program and not just a campaign.
  5. The posture is that of helping people to make an investment in mission; not begging to keep the bills paid.
  6. The parish or diocese needs to be free of financial, sexual or relational misconduct.
  7. The rector need not see money as filthy lucre, but rather as a valuable tool of ministry.
  8. The vestry needs to make financial development at least 10-20% of the conversation (reports, ideas, plans, etc.) at their meetings. Hoping for the best is not a plan.
  9. The Rector needs to know what every member pledges and what payments are and are not being made on those pledges. If we can be trusted to hear confessions of sins then we can be trusted to know about pledges of money.
  10. The rector needs to up their skill-set and spend the time each week engaging with financial development just like any other leader or any other not-for-profit agency.

Really, in the end, I have noticed that clergy and lay leaders who have incorporated meditation and silence into their day as a spiritual practice “miraculously” find a dramatic reduction in their fears…all of them.  And the other thing I notice is that the definition of insanity is, indeed, doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different outcome.  I doubt you are happy with the tired, old stewardship junk you are seeing trotted out by foundations, kitschy package-programs and consultants, or you would not be reading this article.  So why not try something new?

The most effective way to reduce and even eradicate fear is to have an effective plan.  Next week I will discuss strategic planning and will attach a link to example plans for differing sizes of churches.


“Fearless Meaning-making” is a weekly blog on church fundraising by Charles LaFond, an Episcopal Priest, author and master potter living on a farm in New Mexico from which he raises money for Heading Home, an agency which seeks to make homelessness rare, short-lived and non-recurring. Charles is the author of many books including Fearless Church Fundraising and now, Fearless Major Gifts: Inspiring Meaning-making. For more information, videos and model documents go to Charles writes in order to provide new ways and perspectives on church fundraising in the face of old ways which are failing us. Recently Charles increased annual pledging by 50% during a four-year transition and increased the mean pledge from $1,800 to $2,800 with these tools.”