Christian distinctiveness: an aid to fundraising, or a hindrance?
Action Planning has worked with hundreds of Christian charities and churches over the years, and one of the themes that frequently emerges is that it is really hard to raise funds for Christian causes.
We would respectfully suggest that it isn’t especially harder to raise funds for Christian rather than non-Christian causes – it’s just different.
True, the pool of potential donors is probably very much smaller than for secular charities (although we will shortly challenge this assumption as well). And it’s true that many churches are struggling financially and asking more and more of their hard-pressed members (although it is also true that many other churches are growing in numbers and financial strength).
Finally, it is a well-researched fact that people of faith tend to give more to charitable activities than people of no faith – with the result that many secular charities will also be targeting what might be termed ‘the Christian £’.
Understand how you’re perceived
The main complaint from many Christian charities is that funders – especially public sector bodies but also some trusts – automatically turn them down when they see that they are Christian. Doubtless this will occasionally be the case. But it may be helpful to stop and consider whether we are asking the right sources for the right projects.
It is a truism in trusts fundraising that you should read the guidelines and only pitch a project that is within the guidelines and doesn’t conflict with any exclusions. One of the most common exclusions (explicitly or implicitly) is ‘proselytising’. Wikipedia helpfully explains that “proselytism refers to the attempt of any religion or religious individuals to convert people to their beliefs…. The term is generally understood as pejorative, by contrast with evangelism which is viewed as a term of approval. The World Council of Churches has indicated that, used pejoratively, proselytism refers to attempts at conversion by ‘unjust means that violate the conscience of the human person’, such as by coercion or bribery.” Conversely, Wikipedia describes evangelism as “publicly preaching the Gospel with the intention of spreading the message and teachings of Jesus Christ.”
If we accept these Wikipedia definitions, we could say that at one extreme there is coercive proselytising and at the other extreme there is evangelistic ‘sharing’. And, of course, there will be many shades of grey between those two extremes. It would be no surprise if even the most open-minded funder refused to support the coercive extreme; on the other hand there may be more funders than one might imagine open to projects that ‘share information’ about their Christian faith – especially if this is incidental to the core activities of the project.
To help Christian charities understand the implications of these distinctions, we have devised the following Spectrum of Christian Distinctiveness. If you are struggling to raise the money you need, it might be worth thinking carefully about where on this spectrum your charity really sits and then reviewing whether you are approaching the most appropriate sources for that position.
It is important to note that there is nothing judgemental about this spectrum – no position is ‘better’ than any other position. Each has its own validity and significance.
A Spectrum of Christian Distinctiveness
- Christian education and training
- Presentation of Christian viewpoint
- Social welfare as a means of promoting the Gospel
- Social welfare simply because it’s the right thing to do
Charities in this category exist to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, in the hope and expectation that some of those who receive the Gospel will themselves become believers. Whilst not (hopefully!) employing any form of coercion, these charities are very clear that their aim is to respond to the Great Commission to “go and make disciples of all nations”.
It would be unrealistic to expect anyone who did not share the Christian faith to be an enthusiastic supporter of this work. On the other hand, committed Christians may well feel that such work would be a priority within their charitable giving.
Christian education and training
This category would include theological colleges, Sunday Schools and the like. On the whole their target audience will be Christians and Christian families etc, rather than trying to reach non-Christians.
Although this work may, therefore, be less controversial in some people’s eyes than ‘making disciples’, it would still be unrealistic to expect non-Christians to support this kind of work. But again, many committed Christians would take the view that Christian education and training is extremely important and worth supporting.
Presentation of Christian viewpoint
Although it is highly probable that charities in this category are Christian in their origins and motivation, their aim is not to ‘make disciples’, nor are they necessarily trying to teach or train Christians. Their aim is to present a Christian viewpoint, setting out what Christians (or at least some Christians) believe.
Once again it is highly likely that most of the supporters of these organisations will themselves be Christian. But it is not impossible that some funders – for example, some trusts and some individuals – might take the view that whilst they may not agree with everything these organisations say, they make an important contribution to the moral and philosophical health of society and should be supported in their work. Admittedly a bit of a long shot, but not an impossible one.
Social welfare as a means of promoting the Gospel
Now we enter some very interesting territory. Very many Christian charities deliver services that address the huge diversity of needs within society.
But why are they doing it? Some Christian charities are very clear – the provision of services is simply a vehicle to create opportunities to talk to people about Jesus. They are also genuine in their desire to meet need, and will do so energetically and to the best of their ability, but they will be on the lookout for any opportunity – indeed they may seek to create opportunities – to talk about their faith.
For some non-Christian funders, their main concern is to make sure that a particular set of needs is met. They are not too concerned whether the services are provided by Christians or Muslims – or cake makers or model railway enthusiasts for that matter – as long as the services are of high quality and meet the needs. And as long as Christianity or Islam (or baking or trains) are not forced onto the beneficiaries, they are happy.
Other non-Christian funders may take a different view. They may be of the opinion that the beneficiaries are by definition vulnerable, and they may be unhappy at the possibility that they may not just be prayed over but also preyed upon by the charity. Unless they are willing to invest the time to come and find out for themselves, such funders are unlikely to be supportive.
Social welfare simply because it’s the right thing to do
This last category on the spectrum is also interesting, because it is where some Christian charities want to have their cake and eat it. They want some funders to believe that, whilst their motivation is Christian, there is nothing ‘Christian’ about whet they do or how they do it. In many cases this is absolutely the case, but in other cases there is a temptation (if that’s not an inappropriate use of the word) to stray into the previous category and share the Gospel from time to time. If this is genuinely ‘incidental’ – ie the beneficiary raises the topic of religion or faith in just the same way as they might seek someone’s views on the political issue of the day – that’s fine. But if in reality the charity is trying to engineer those conversations – however subtly – then they probably belong in the previous category.
Match messages to constituencies
As you consider the challenges your charity faces in fundraising, it is worth considering where your organisation sits on this spectrum. But to be more specific, it is worth considering where on this spectrum the activities of your charity sit and then where on this spectrum your current fundraising proposition sits. If there is a mismatch, or a compromise, this may be part of the reason your fundraising is struggling.
Beyond making sure that your messaging is consistent with your activities, this process may also give you some clues about your most promising constituencies of support. In just the same way as we have described a spectrum of Christian distinctiveness, one might also describe a (admittedly simplistic) spectrum of donor: ranging from committed Christian, through nominal Christian, to non-Christian or secular, to anti-Christian or atheist. Overlaying one spectrum over the other, it quickly becomes apparent where you should be looking for your support –and where it simply isn’t worth trying.
This can be taken to a further level of granularity within the ‘Christian’ categories; for example, will your work appeal (or not) to any particular Christian denomination(s) and/or churchmanship?
To return to where this article began, of course we know that it is hard to raise funds for Christian causes. But the fact is that it is hard to raise funds for any cause. The route to failure is to scatter-gun your appeals to any audience you can find, whether you are a cat charity, a cancer charity or a Christian charity. To be successful, every charity has to be clear about its natural constituencies of support and then approach those constituencies in the most appropriate manner and with the most appropriate messages.
Honestly, it isn’t especially harder to raise funds for Christian rather than non-Christian causes – it’s just different.