Big donors at church

Dad and I were just talking. Non-profit organizations that rely heavily on individual donations (as opposed to non-profits that rely on grants) typically recognize big donors in some way, e.g., in the annual report there will be listings of donors under categories such as “Platinum Givers,” “President’s Circle,” etc. Indeed, fundraisers tell us that big donors really like to be recognized in this way, and this should be one of the techniques you should use to cultivate your big donors.

Since Unitarian Universalist churches are heavily dependent on individual donations, it would make sense to publish such lists in a congregation’s annual report: “Channing Circle, giving $20,000+” and “Parker Patrons, giving $10,000-20,000,” etc. However, as an essentially egalitarian religion, we don’t want to leave out people with modest who means who happen to give a substantial percentage of their income, so Dad and I thought we’d include that in the categories of giving, e.g., “Channing Circle, those who give $20,000+ or 10%+ of gross annual income,” etc.

Would you implement such a system to reward big donors and stimulate increased giving in your congregation? Discuss.

15 thoughts on “Big donors at church

  1. Lizard Eater

    I would love to do this … but the big protest against something similar came NOT from those of more modest means, but from our highest givers. They did not want the recognition.

  2. Dan

    Lizard Eater — Non-profits get this from some big givers, too — those donations are marked “Anonymous.” Would this have worked?

  3. Dubhlainn

    I think it makes more sense to have some type of “thank you” breakfast for the largest givers with private invites than it does to list them anywhere in an official document.

    As one of the lower income givers (I in fact could not even afford to pledge at all this year because I was unsure of my income) and also someone who invests huge amount of time and energy to my church I would be very offended if people were pointed out only for the amount money they give.

    It makes much more sense to me to acknowledge our volunteers and givers of time (which in my experience those on the high money givers list and the high time givers list are many of the same people)

  4. ms. m

    I have no problem with recognizing the big givers (percentage or amount) and I have no problem with the folks of modest means giving what they truly can. I do get irked by the folks though, who are exceedingly demanding and not giving time or money, but plenty of complaints. You know…the ones with big new cars, weekend homes, leisure travel galore and $500 pledges who scream at the underpaid staff because the table cloth is crooked. Perhaps a wall o shame?

  5. Will

    To me, it’s never distasteful to say thank you. It might be appropriate, tho, to give them an opportunity,perhaps on the pledge card, to opt out of any public recognition beforehand.

    And, Ms. M, I know what you mean!

  6. Jess

    I wonder if this could be a way to encourage more “plain talk” about money in many of our congregations — but I suspect it really depends on the money culture of your particular group. For instance, there are many congregations where pledge data is so “secret” that not even the minister knows who the big donors are, only the treasurer of the board and possibly the canvass/stewardship chair.

  7. ogre

    It’s something that’s been talked about in my congregation. But it hasn’t happened… yet.

    Our larger donors tend not to want to be identified–in each case, they don’t want to have people treat them differently.

    But the idea of putting donors of a given amount (range) and of a given percentage (as reported by them) into a category would muddy that water nicely.

    I’d address the time spent as well–it’s a common issue, and a fair one, in the discussions we have had. My suggestion has been to ask for a time pledge (apparently this WAS done, long ago, here…) and to also record time volunteered (asking people to report…). Take the totals–pledged time and time just volunteered in fact–and slice them up into deciles or whatever, and treat the groups in the same way that we’d be treating donors of large amounts or percentages.

    Of course, you’ll find that there’s a lot of overlap… but that’s precisely what some people need to see–that the folks who are being generous with time and money are often the same people. But something needs to be done to spur on the devout donors of 1% of their (not tiny) incomes and an hour a month….

    (Jess, we had precisely the culture you describe–to a “t”. We’ve managed to start breaking it down, in part by violating the taboo and simply stating how much some of us were donating. We’ve talked openly about how much it costs to do/run/pay for X, and the dues to district and UUA that we pay for each member before we even start to pay for electricity, the minister, etc…. It’s still treated as confidential information–what you put on the pledge card is not just open to everyone. But the whole board, as well as the stewardship chair, minister, and the finance committee all can get that information now. Just a few years ago, only–ONLY–the pledge recorder knew. It was bizarre.)

  8. Dubhlainn

    I guess reality in my church is differnt than elsewhere. I keep hearing there as well that we need to “be honest about money” but generally, around UUism, the only thing I hear is about money.

    I remember distictly when I went to the New UU classes at my church and the retired couple who were in the class with me. They had been UU for years but all the talk about money just made them both feel fed up, in the end he said, “we cannot afford to be members here” and I have no idea where they are today.

    There is a distinct difference in peoples opinions. Ministers and board members appear to be one side of the issue, saying we need to be more honest and talk more often about money, people who already feel as if they are pledging at adequate levels or who cannot afford to pledge (or pledge more) are on the other side, and feel we talk about money way to often.

  9. Michael

    We’re just starting our stewardship campaign this year, using the Fair Share Stewardship Guide in Wayne Clark’s Beyond Fundraising. I’m thinking about asking people to self-identify if their giving is “fair share” and recognizing those people.

    If you’re not familiar with that guide, the percentage increases based on income–so people earning $10,000 a year give a smaller percentage than people earning $100,000 a year.

    in peace,

  10. Dan

    Dubhlainn @ 3 — Lots of non-profits do what you’re suggesting — have a private event (dinner, reception, whatever) for big donors. This would address Lizard Eater @ 1, too.

    Jess @ 6 — “I suspect it really depends on the money culture of your particular group.” Indeed. There are regional differences for sure, and cultural differences too (which I know all too well as a cheapskate New England Yankee).

    ogre @ 7 — Tracking volunteer hours can be a major challenge, but it’s a really good idea.

    Dubhlainn @ 8 — Sorry to hear you feel that way about your church. From my point of view as a staff member, when church members start saying things like “people who already feel as if they are pledging at adequate levels or who cannot afford to pledge (or pledge more) feel we talk about money way to often,” that reminds me of when I worked in sales and the boss said, “Sorry, we’re going to have to cut your commission this year, and no we don’t have time to talk about it” –that was my cue to look for a new job. And of course when you are a member of a church, you are in effect one of the bosses. So I keep an ear out for big reluctance to talk about money — if I hear enough of it, I get ready to move on. Nothing personal, but my financial survival is at stake.

    Michael @ 10 — Thanks for the tip on the Wayne Clark book — I’m going to pass this info along to the folks in the Canvass Committee here. (And by the way, long time no see — how’s life?)

  11. Dubhlainn


    Actually I agree completely. We are in some serious financial troubles in my church. At the same time when I look at our budget I see a huge amount of money. We have the money to pay fair share, and our staff at recommended levels, but we don’t. We are in search and I know we will never be able to attract the type of minister many people want, and I also feel as if many will not accept a younger, up and coming minister. It is a real issue.

    I have to wonder though… is the answer talking more about why someone should give money or is it offering something of worth so that people are more likely to support it?

  12. Dan

    Dubhlainn @ 12 — You write: “is the answer talking more about why someone should give money or is it offering something of worth so that people are more likely to support it?” — This is the classic debate of any church in a market-driven economy, isn’t it? In a market economy, the default assumption is that when you give money you get something in return; this is why public radio stations give out trinkets, so when you give them some money you get something tangible in return (in addition to the programming that you presumably get). So what do you “get” from a church?…

    I’d argue that churches are not in the business of supplying a product or service in exchange for money, and it’s hard to fool anyone into believing otherwise. However, the concept that one should give money just because it’s the right thing to do — what a very alien concept in our society. I believe that’s why we wind up having to talk about money so much in our churches, because we are attempting to subvert the dominant paradigm of a market-driven society.

    No easy way out of this problem. The only thing to do, IMHO, is to manage the inevitable disagreements about how to talk about money in a productive manner.

  13. DadH

    Dan, I had no idea that our conversation about fund raising would excite so many replies. I do believe it is quite possible that a list arranged in categories might encourage some people who take a lot, and give little, to actually increase their pledges. Those who prefer not be listed could give anonymously. Also, as our local hospital does, in addition to the list of donors, there could be a list recognizing those volunteers who have given 100, 500, 1000 hours of their time working on projects in the church.

  14. Roger

    good idea, but of course different churches have different cultural hurdles, and it can take a lot of courage or sweet talking to do it. In my last settlement after 7 years we had a stewardship reception, and invited those who had given generously of money or time. It was a church of 100 pledge units, so not that many to worry about. I started at the top of the giving amounts and invited them down to the average pledge amount, or till we had no more than the host’s house could hold. The invitees included a few who gave below the cutoff but, for them, gave generously, and those few who give a lot of their time and talents but not their money. Most people give both, however. But noting it on the invitation as a reception for those who give generously of their time, resources or both made it easier to take for some.
    A few still thought we were going to “talk about money,” when we really talked about the church and why we give, etc. The talking part was after wine and snacks. It worked well for 2 years and by year 3 had lost its luster and attendance.

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