Catholic parishes across the country are in distress: Mass attendance is trending downward, church scandals dominate headlines, and the lay faithful have lost the sense of purpose and belonging that should inhere in parish life.

At the same time, as the expenses of running a modern parish (especially those with a parish school) steadily increase, weekly offertories are trending downward.

To both reinvigorate parishes spiritually and help them thrive financially, something must change.  

Many parishes attempt to address these challenges separately: first conducting spiritual renewal campaigns, and later, fundraising initiatives. While building new formation programs, parishes pull back on fundraising, hoping that “money will follow mission”; but without sustained fundraising activity, it generally doesn’t. Conversely, parishes implement short term campaigns to increase the weekly offertory. These often show initial promise, but since they aren't substantively related to the life of the parish, they fizzle out.

Neither of these approaches tend to be effective over the long-term. Thankfully, the right approach is also not going to begin with a jumble of trendy buzzword-driven programs or the implementation of a “transformative initiative” or a “campaign for renewal”.

The answer is much more straightforward: implement the best fundraising principles of successful nonprofits.

Treat parishioners like people, rather than ATMs, that is, assuming they will give after handing them an envelope. Thank contributors for their gifts. Build relationships. Stay in touch. Cast off the clinical and transactional for the personal and relational.

To be sure, better fundraising is not the panacea for complex problems facing the Catholic Church today. The point of this article is simply to suggest that a new approach to fundraising – one modeled on successful nonprofits – would effectively address the financial concerns of parishes, and over time, have the added benefits of strengthening parishioners’ connection with their parish community, removing barriers between parishioner and pastor, and rekindling a sense of belonging and purpose.

Evaluating Parish Fundraising

In the context of the wider nonprofit world, Catholic parishes could be viewed as severely underperforming nonprofits. For most parishes, fundraising tactics include:

  • Sending a box of giving envelopes to homes every month
  • Reporting on weekly offerings in the Sunday Bulletin
  • Occasionally making appeals from the pulpit
  • Online giving sometimes available, with occasional appeals for sign-ups
  • Special events like charity galas
  • Increased offertory initiatives

These tactics, unlike those of successful nonprofits, are passive; they are transactional rather than relational; and they rely solely on the pastor and occasional volunteer labor.

When Mass attendance hovered around 75%, the pews were full enough and expenses low enough that passing the baskets on Sunday was all that was needed to keep the lights on.

But Mass attendance has dropped dramatically since the 1960’s (down to 39% in 2017) and fundraising tactics remain unchanged. Parishes continue to operate under the assumption that people will give, or rather the assumption that people will feel obligated to give, rarely asking for gifts and rarely seeing fundraising success.

A Better Approach to Parish Fundraising

If parishes could get fundraising right, the benefits—both financial and spiritual—would be substantial.

Spiritual care of parishioners would dramatically improve as the parish gets to know them better, and Mass attendance would go up as parishioners feel more valued and connected. Just as building the habit of prayer begets more prayer, giving begets giving and drives further involvement in parish life.

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matt 6:21

A “better approach to fundraising” doesn’t require anything fancy or “innovative”—just the adoption of what other nonprofits do in order to be successful. Successful nonprofits actively work to bring donors into the life of the organization and cultivate a sense of belonging. They:

  • Thank donors for their gifts
  • Build relationships with donors through calls and meetings
  • Dedicate personnel time & resources to fundraising
  • Regularly communicate with supporters through the mail
  • Offer planned giving opportunities (estate gifts/bequests)
  • Recognize the most committed supporters through clubs, societies, etc.
  • Reach out to grantmaking foundations in a systematic way
  • Build relationships with and solicit business/corporate givers.

Successful nonprofits recognize that donors need to be cultivated; they need to be asked and asked for specific amounts; and they need to be thanked with more than just a form email.

Incorporating these – or at least some of these – practices, would help put parishes on firm financial footing.

Here are seven things parishes could start doing right away to improve their fundraising:

  1. Send a quarterly “thank you” letter to all contributors.
  2. Gather parish staff (Including Pastor and Associate Pastor) at least once a year, to call and thank every contributor for their support – leaving a voicemail message is enough.
    1. The Pastor should make calls to the highest level contributors.
  3. Meet in person once per year with Parishioners who give more than $2,500 (or $5,000 if a large parish)
  4. Send personalized (i.e. “Dear [First Name]”) letters along with giving envelopes sent to homes.
    1. If monthly boxes of envelopes are distributed at the parish rather than mailed, ask for volunteers to place the letters in/with the boxes before distribution.
  5. Recognize contributors that commit significant gifts to the parish each year. 
  6. Send a special year-end Christmas appeal by mail—not just by Christmas envelopes.
  7. Add simple language to the parish website and to one of the above-mentioned letters that invites parishioners to consider adding the parish to their will or estate plan.

Putting the Plan into Practice

Knowing what to do and how to do it are two very different things.

Some pastors are natural fundraisers and administrators who can tend to the spiritual needs of their parishioners and execute well on the business aspects of running a nonprofit corporation which often includes a school, multiple charitable ministries, and a professional staff.

For most parishes though, a different strategy is needed. For example, a parish could simply hire a charity and development officer—an investment nearly any other nonprofit would make, if placed in a similar situation. Or multiple parishes could pool their resources to hire dedicated development personnel to serve multiple parishes. A competent consulting firm could provide training to these development officers as well as participating pastors and others in the parish, and support the officers with research, collateral material, letter writing, grantwriting, and other mentoring and back-office services. Ultimately, perhaps even the diocese could supply this professional support.

The Bottom Line

According to a 2018 study, though Church giving still accounts for the largest share of overall philanthropic donations, it is down more than 50% since 1990. There are more than a few theories as to why Catholic parishes might be experiencing this decline, but the most commonly cited is the decline in Mass attendance and the fact that so many Catholics are leaving the Church.

Since parishes can’t compel Mass attendance, and pastors don’t have the option to simply wring their hands and hope things turn around, what should they do?

Take up the habits and principles that animate successful nonprofits.  Build personal relationships with contributors. Ask for and encourage joyful giving, don’t assume obligatory offerings. Thank contributors for their generosity, whatever the amount.

Adopting these practices would not only be financially profitable, but would also make parish fundraising more faithfully Catholic, in that it would proceed from the perspective of communio, honoring parishioners as members of the Body of Christ, strengthening the bonds between them, and cultivating love for Christ and His Church.

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It is my goal to help purpose-driven organizations achieve their fundraising goals, craft clear and compelling communications, and achieve greater influence. Feel free to shoot me an email at aguin@americanphilanthropic.com if I can be of help to you and your organization, or check out our fundraising services online at AmericanPhilanthropic.com. We also have ongoing events throughout the year.