In my many years of working with churches, the topic of “what about the people who don’t give” comes up all the time. Every church has them. It can be 40%, or 50% or more of the people who are attending the church. They attend, they participate, and they may even serve. But they haven’t begun supporting the church financially. The very mention of this group brings about a roll of the eyes and a frustrated lament from the leaders of the church. They don’t know what to do to motivate them to start giving. What’s the best plan for reaching new donors?
For many churches, the approach is the same as for all the other people in their church. Doing more of what hasn’t worked in the past is not a solution that is likely to work. If that was going to work, it probably would have worked by now. A single approach for all the givers and potential givers in your church is not the answer. Non-givers are different and have to be treated as such.
Additionally, we have to understand why people are not giving in the first place. In his excellent book on stewardship and generosity, Generous Living, Financial Advisor Ron Blue lists seven reasons why people don’t give.
- Don’t plan to.
- Don’t know how to.
- Don’t know they can.
- Limited relationships.
- Limited vision.
- Financial problems.
- Spiritual problems.
And he notes that spiritual reasons are by far the number one reason people do not give to their church.
That certainly squares up with what I have seen over the years. It’s rare when a person gives beyond their spiritual development. People’s giving tends to mirror their faith. There is a theology that is behind every stage of giving. If we do not develop the theology of the giver, the longer-term pattern will not change.
I look back at my own giving story. My wife and I became Christ followers in spring 1983. We started our giving journey in 1985. And then started to become generous Christians in May 1985 when, for the first time in our lives, we wrote a check to our church for 10% of our gross income that month. We would have said at the time we could not afford to give more. But that’s not really true. Financially, we could have given more. It was our spiritual development that was holding us back.
Giving is a journey. And people can’t grow in their journey until they start the journey. The church cannot assume people will read their Bible and figure it out. The church has to be intentional in developing their people. That is, discipling them specifically in the area of financial generosity. What does the Bible say about your money and possessions and what are the implications of that for your life? Preaching regularly about it and reinforcing that by studying it in the group structure of your church.
Your motive matters. Therefore, it is important to do this for the good of the giver, not the financial needs of the church. Communicating to your givers that this is not about what the church needs from you. It is about what happens to you when you give, as the Apostle Paul said so eloquently in Philippians 4:17.
So, addressing the spiritual side of giving is the foundation for developing non-givers.
On the strategy and tactical side, there are things you can and should do to help develop non-givers.
The challenge to develop inactive givers is this. Churches generally do not know how to address the issue in a way that encourages and motivates the giver. It is not helpful for the pastor or others to say things like, “we have a lot of people who do not give here.” What is really happening is that there are a lot of people who haven’t started their giving journey yet. Isn’t that a better way of viewing it? And for many of them, they might be giving elsewhere but not to the church. Many inactive givers would rather give to a good cause that impacts people than to their church. They don’t have a giving problem, they have a “giving to my church” problem.
Part of the reason might reside with the church. Nominal and no-givers have wrong perceptions about the church and its intentions in developing givers. Their baggage from other experiences or just plain wrong perceptions lead them to believe that all the church wants is their money. The Bible doesn’t teach that or even suggests that idea. Most churches would say they don’t believe that either and yet it leaks through in their efforts to balance the budget. That’s why the Philippians 4:17 verse is so important to developing inactive givers. Our motivation is their well-being, not the church’s.
As we think through how to develop non-givers, let’s not ask too much of them in the beginning. If it is a journey, we are not asking them to do the whole journey right off the bat. You don’t learn to swim today and swim 20 laps tomorrow. Think of it like going to a gym for the first time. We only want them to pick up the 10-pound dumbbell and start there.
To do that, I’d recommend that you segment inactive givers and speak to them differently than the rest of the congregation. You can do this through targeted email campaigns. Inactive givers tend to like giving to a cause that benefits people outside the walls of the church. Show them ways they can make smaller gifts – say, $25, $50 or $100 – that would meet the needs of a people group in your community. A simple step that would get them started on their giving journey.
Another way of speaking to this group is to mention them in the offering moment periodically. Perhaps if you have a special cause the church is supporting, you might say something like, “If you have not started your giving journey here at our church, today would be a great time to do that. And here’s why….” Using invitational language like this is winsome and it invites non-givers to start their journey.
Once a person gives for the first time, there is a very important next step in the process. Gratitude. Thanking them for their gift. This is often overlooked in the church. And yet every non-profit that is not a church does it as a matter of course. The church has to be as good at expressing gratitude for a first-time gift as any organization.
People often equate life priorities with their financial treasures, therefore the release of personal resources to your care and stewardship signals a deeper level of relationship between your church, the giver, and you. To ignore this bold step is to potentially suggest an indifference. Making a financial gift indicates thoughtfulness in the decision and not an impromptu or impulse moment. Expressing gratitude should be the response by the church.
How do you create intentional practices to make this step of gratitude effective? Here are some thoughts to help you develop your plan:
- Have the accounting team give you the list of new givers no later than 9 AM on Tuesday of each week.
- The sooner a note is received, the more powerful the impact. Have the notes in the mail no more than 48 hours after the initial gift.
- Make the note handwritten to increase your relational, pastoral connection. Even if the pastor’s handwriting looks like it came from an archaeological dig, the personal touch is what matters. Sure, you could use email, but a handwritten note is much more powerful.
- Hand-write the address on the envelope and use a colorful first-class stamp. Stamped envelopes are more often read plus, it adds a personal touch.
- The senior pastor (with some important exceptions) writes the note, not another staff member.
- Just a few sentences makes the connection stronger.
- Always use first names to begin.
And one final thing to reinforce the whole process. Celebrate people who have given for the first time. I would recommend you do this at least every other month, if not every month. The best time to do this is in the giving moment or during set-up for the offering. “One of the things we get really excited about here in our church is when someone gives for the very first time. Last month we had 29 people who gave for the very first time. How cool is that? Let’s give them a hand this morning as we celebrate the start of their giving journey.”
See what that does? It reinforces all the other parts. Imagine if you are one of the first-time givers in that worship service. You’d feel pretty good that the church recognized and celebrated what you had done. And you’d probably be motivated to do it again.
And that’s what it looks like to encourage and engage first time givers.