Hope is Not a Plan

Fundraising for Church Buildings

by Michael Coates, appearing in Volume 24

Growing up Catholic in South Jersey put me in a demographic with thousands of other kids. Both of my parents were raised in Philadelphia, and because we had a large extended family close to us in both the city and the suburbs, I got to see many Catholic parishes. Family weddings, funerals, First Holy Communions, Confirmations, and CYO basketball team participation brought me to a lot of churches. Today, working in the Catholic Development field, I’ve had the opportunity to see many more. Some grand, some humble; all home to the faith that helped shape who I am.

As a development consultant working exclusively for the advancement of Catholic institutions for the last fifteen years, I have participated in many discussions regarding fundraising, finances, and the construction or expansion of diocesan, parish, or school facilities. One of the conclusions I have come to as a result of all of these consultations is that the pastor of any given church is wearing too many hats! These priests that lead us in living our faith have so many vital responsibilities other than administration and finance. Our pastors did not go to seminary to learn about capital campaigns and fundraising. That’s why it is prudent to hire professional counsel when proceeding with a capital needs program. No matter who’s on your parish leadership team — Joe Business Owner, Charlie Millionaire, or John the CPA — just because they are good with numbers and are successful in their careers doesn’t mean they know development and fundraising. And, knowing church development is an even more specialized discipline.

The second conclusion I have come to (which, in my opinion, is actually the number one mistake that parishes, schools, and dioceses make when they decide to advance a capital campaign) is that people always want to assign their need as the goal for a campaign. To give a fictional example, when St. Matthew Catholic Church has a masterplan of development for the construction of a new parish hall; the expansion of the classrooms and ministry meeting rooms; and the refurbishment of pews and stained glass windows, the combined costs for these many projects will be a large sum… let’s say $10 million. The fact that St. Matthew Catholic Church has to tackle all of these needs eventually does not mean that the parish has the financial capacity to do so in one campaign effort. A parish of any size in any area of the country has a finite number of registered families with a finite capacity to donate. If the financial total of a project exceeds what a parish is capable of raising, it is time to prioritize the needs and segment the overall plan. Needing $10 million dollars is not a good enough reason to assign this number as your campaign goal. It is the evaluation of the financial potential in the parish that should set the goal.

Saint John Neumann Catholic Church, Lilburn, GA. Photo: Guidance in Giving

So what does determine a church’s financial potential in a capital campaign? A review of the total number of registered families compared to the number of ‘active’ donors, the weekly collection totals and the stability of the offertory over the course of several years, past campaign statistics and participation numbers (if available,) parish participation in the diocesan annual appeal… all these and more are aspects of the parish giving history that should be considered.

Some faith communities we have worked with have said to me (and many of my colleagues), “You don’t understand… we are different from other parishes…” That may be true in some respects, but there are certain donor and participation statistics that cannot be easily ignored. As mentioned above, all parishes have a total number of registered families and only a segment of those are considered “active” in their financial support of the church. While a well-designed campaign plan is structured to make an appeal to all of the families in the parish, will a pledge request be responded to sacrificially by parishioners who do not support the church in the offertory? Will the capital campaign be the program that gets a parishioner active and volunteering when they don’t come to Mass or participate in any of the parish groups or ministries? It can happen, but it can’t be counted upon. Typically, less than 40% of parishioners give regularly and participate at their church. Larger congregations have a reduced level of participation on average, unless a tremendously strong sense of community and ‘ownership’ of the mission of the parish has been embraced. Smaller parishes seem to have a larger percentage of participation because there is less anonymity. But no church family has 100% financial participation. Knowing this should dispel the utopian idea that leads some campaign planning—“If we all give X we will raise the money.”

No church community wants to hear that they cannot attain all they want to do in one pledge campaign or fund-raising effort. However, to ignore the giving statistics of decades of development implementation is not a path to success. As a firm, we have also heard many times, “We hope our families will all respond generously.” I learned from the president of our company many years ago…Hope is not a plan.

So what should a good campaign plan consist of? First and foremost, an assessment of the parish needs should be conducted. What is the growth rate of the parish and the surrounding community? What resources are missing from the parish (meeting rooms, larger worship space, Adoration Chapel, rectory, etc.) that would make the parish community function better and become a stronger faith community? Are the families of the parish aware of the needs? Is there a desire within the parish and a ‘push’ from the parishioners for these resources? How well has the parish promoted and communicated financial information to the parishioners over the years? Has the parish leadership developed trust among the families for how the finances of the parish are being managed?

These questions can be answered and analyzed through a thorough Feasibility and Planning Study, which should be the consideration of a parish before proceeding with fundraising. If the pastor and parish council members can state with certainty that the above questions can be answered positively, then a formal study may not be necessary. But consideration of these topics is a must.

Saint Peter Chanel Catholic Church, Roswell, Georgia. Photo: Guidance in Giving

Next, all necessary architectural plans and the budget for such must be finalized. Donors to any capital campaign want to know that their pledge dollars will be well managed. The confidence that comes to potential donor families from knowing that the parish leadership team(s) have advanced a well-conceived and meticulously planned course of action for facilities construction and that these facilities can be shown to benefit the faith community in demonstrative ways is a great foundation for success. A church does not need the blueprints for the buildings in question, but certainly detailed floor-plans and renderings are a must to begin a capital campaign for construction purposes. If a debt-reduction or increased offertory/collection campaign is the purpose of the endeavor, it is essential that all financial figures be current and accurate. Show the families that your church leadership is being pro-active about their church’s economic future.

A third component of proper fundraising planning is the assembly of a strong leadership team or campaign committee. We have found it very helpful in many cases to bring together a group of people that represent as many of the groupings of people in the parish as possible: long-time parishioners and new families that have just joined; younger parish members with children and older seniors; singles and married couples; school parents, etc. As the campaign committee will be the ‘face’ of a strong campaign, it is good that these active leaders know the needs of the parish from several perspectives. It is simply a good idea to bring new faces, ideas, and leadership into an endeavor that will challenge all of the church families to give sacrificially.

The fourth aspect of proper campaign planning is to engage a consultant who specializes in church development and fundraising. Most likely, this consultant’s plan of action will have been implemented many times before. As a company, they will have refined their approach based on what they have seen to be effective. Your church will be the recipient of a course of action that has been ‘practiced’ on other parishes. The main consideration in this area would be to choose a firm whose development plan you believe to be the best fit for who you are as a congregation.