It’s hardly breaking news that many congregations struggle with financial stewardship. Perhaps there was a time when Christians gave to the church without a second’s thought. In days of yore, giving was considered a duty and solemn obligation, and members reliably filled out pledge cards, doing their part to keep church coffers full.
That’s not necessarily the case today. Shifts have occurred in how members understand their financial obligations to church communities, and the sheer number of worthy organizations calling on people of goodwill for support has exploded. What’s more, the nonprofit fundraising world is increasingly sophisticated—and many churches are falling behind in the competition for members’ charitable dollars. Fortunately, “many” does not equal “all.” In efforts to keep up with the times, some churches have turned to crowdfunding. The internet can fix anything, right?
I love crowdfunding, which I’ll describe below. I have to confess that I’m a little obsessed with it, and I’m generally optimistic about crowdfunding’s potential for the church. However, after studying the phenomenon for a dissertation about congregational crowdfunding, I’ve come to suggest some caution around the practice. Yes, many congregations have—and many more congregations could—use crowdfunding effectively. But it isn’t easy. At all.
What follows is some background on the practice, along with tips and tricks I’ve discovered through my research.
What is Crowdfunding?
There are lots of ways to ask for donations using the internet, but I understand crowdfunding as online goal-based fundraising ventures conducted by groups or individuals that seek small contributions from a large number of people. In order to raise money for their causes, crowdfunders usually use specialized websites. Kickstarter, Crowdrise, and GoFundMe are three of the biggest platforms in the crowdfunding arena, but there are also hundreds more.
Some crowdfunded campaigns are all-or-nothing, so if the fundraising goal isn’t met, the campaign doesn’t go forward, and donors do not pay anything. Other campaigns are more flexible; the organizers take anything they receive and put it towards the venture.
Planning is the Key to the Crowdfunding Process
Perhaps when crowdfunding was just getting started, you could raise money with just the germ of an idea and a slick picture or two. But these days, would-be funders have higher expectations. Potential donors scrolling through crowdfunding sites are used to viewing the product of many hours of careful planning. Indeed, the best crowdfunding campaigns might even be thought of as mini capital campaigns. In such cases, committees plan for weeks. They go live with some funders already committed, and planners have 30-day marketing strategies ready to go.
Thus, the first, critical step in crowdfunding is identifying a compelling project and crafting a pitch that shows and tells why the project matters.
Crafting a Crowdfunding Pitch
For congregations, finding the actual idea for a public crowdfunding campaign is often the most difficult part. Crowdfunding campaigns work best when they’re for something tangible. Supporting amorphous programming, however well-intentioned, is a tough ask. That’s because folks tend to look to crowdfunding to help bring some new thing into the world, to make a dream reality, or to address a pressing, often unexpected need.
A successful crowdfunding pitch will create a compelling story about not only what is needed, but also why it is needed. It will use language and images that help possible funders envision the future of the crowdfunded project and see its transformative potential. That’s why campaigns with videos enjoy a much higher chance of success. A video doesn’t have to have super-high production value; authenticity wins over slickness every time. In crowdfunding, it’s much better to have something—such as images that feed the imaginations of potential donors—than nothing.
So, what’s the specific, concrete dream your congregation has always had but never taken up, perhaps because it seems a bit too crazy, or because it lies outside the scope of your annual budget? Do you want to set up an afterschool program? Fund a community garden?
The monks of the New Camadoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California, successfully pitched a project to deal with the effects of devastating rains, flooding, and mudslides on their retreat operations. Their ability to tell—and show—a compelling story about a dramatic need that could not have been anticipated enabled the community to raise more than $300,000 to repair roads and buildings damaged by torrential rains.
Crowdfunding is great for special needs, for a stretch goal, or a “crazy” idea. It’s not as effective for general budget items or ongoing expenses.
How Big is the ‘Crowd’ in Crowdfunding?
Typical stewardship campaigns focus only on congregation members as givers, but the internet allows for anyone and everyone to give. Part of the appeal of crowdfunding for congregations lies in its potential to expand pools of potential givers. Potentially, at least.
Now, I hate to be that guy, but … the chance of a random person from the internet giving to your campaign is small—as in, super-mini-mustard-seed small.
Don’t despair, though, because crowdfunding and other internet-related campaigns do, in fact, provide more people with the opportunity to give. And the individuals who are most likely to donate are those who already have shared interests and existing connections to either the congregation or the crowdfunding appeal. These people may be thrilled to support your campaign; they may not have given before simply because they were never asked.
St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in Brooklyn, for example, regularly uses Indiegogo to generate funding for various ministries, including moving into and renovating a new worship space that also serves as a co-working site for people who typically work from home but sometimes prefer to work with others. The church is funded by a core constituency of local donors, but it also has developed a distributed network of funders who are interested in supporting the kinds of ministries St. Lydia’s models to the wider Church.
The best crowdfunding campaigns employ clear, time-sensitive goals. They ask people to donate by certain deadlines. I used to be skeptical of such “tricks,” until I remembered what Christians believe about time. There’s chronos time—the time on your watch. Normal time. And then there’s kairos time, a word indicating the appropriate, holy moment. God’s time. Surely the Spirit can work through crowdfunding’s goals, pushing God’s people to give by a certain pre-selected day.
Kickstarting Curiosity, Innovation, and Risk-Taking
Many traditional stewardship campaigns suffer from lack of creativity and low expectations. We try to shame people into giving, or push them to up their pledge 2% to cover increased insurance costs. Into this rather bland scene, crowdfunding can inject some welcome spice that sparks curiosity and innovation. Crowdfunding may be just the right venue to invite your community to take a risk you might not otherwise be willing to embrace.
Even better, you can launch an all-or-nothing crowdfunding campaign as part of a process of discernment.
Luc DiMarzio, a spoken word artist, launched a crowdfunding campaign to create an album to “bridge the gap between spoken word [and] church music.” It raised $6000. Maybe that was the Spirit’s way of saying, “Go for it, Luc!” Maybe, on the other hand, the Spirit was less impressed by the myriad of crowdfunding projects aimed at supporting the publication of various spiritual musings, less compelling worship music recordings, and personal retreats.
What’s the thing you’ve always wanted to try, but never could convince the committee to give it a whirl? If you raise the funds, great! Make the dream happen. If you fall short of the goal, well, now you know and nobody pays a dime.
Check out these examples of solid church-related crowdfunding campaigns (one, two). Plus, here’s a short guide booklet I wrote on the topic. God works in many and mysterious ways, even online. So get some folks together and join the crowd.