Dear Nonprofiteer, How Much is Time Worth?

Dear Nonprofiteer,

How can I, paid administrator of a community church, get members of the congregation to stop seeing tithing as something that applies to others? Our board set an example last year and each gave 10% of their income. But the congregation did not follow suit. They said, "OK, problem solved. Phew, that was a close one!" We occasionally have discussions about 5% or 10% tithing, but of course, the same few always respond and most don’t. Members of churches tend to think that there’s a "mother" organization up there that provides funds for local churches. The truth is, those "mother" organizations are supported by local churches who get their money from congregations.

Church members also tend to believe that if they’re giving time, they don’t need to give money. Ours is a fairly wealthy congregation with a modest budget. Lack of funds always makes me want to impose membership dues! Any help to offer?  Signed, Time for Some Money

Dear Time for Some Money,

It’s tempting to impose a mandate when people fail to come through voluntarily, but there are a few things you can try before lowering the dues boom.  Your problem has multiple dimensions, so there are multiple solutions you can try–and if that’s not making lemonade out of lemons, what is?

Dimension #1: "You couldn’t possibly be asking me for money–I give time."  Nonprofits secular and sacred face this one constantly.  The first cure is to find some public setting in which to make the obvious point: You can’t pay your light bill with time.  You can’t repair the church roof with time (unless you’re Amish, or something).  You can’t pay your church administrator with time!  Sometimes it takes laying the issue out in just this simple way to make people realize that, while there are many things that can be done by volunteers, there are many other equally essential ones that can’t.   The second piece of information to get across is that, year in and year out and in every charitable setting in the nation, volunteers give MORE money than non-volunteers–and why not?  Who knows better than volunteers how vital the work of the agency really is?  When people hear that volunteers generally are also generous donors, an appeal for dollars starts to sound less like an affront and more like a recognition of their proper social role.

Dimension #2: "It’s a good thing we have a Board that can cough up the money!"  It may be that the congregation failed to follow the Board’s lead in tithing because it genuinely believes that the Board has a special role in this regard.  And it does, of course–but the role is to identify the congregation’s needs, and set an example in meeting them, NOT to meet them alone.  Again, changing the members’ wishful thinking about the Board’s unaided ability to sustain the church will require finding an opportunity for presenting the facts to the congregation.  Maybe it’s the pastor who should say, "Every member of the Board has generously tithed to the church–and that leaves us with only 85% of our budget to raise."  Or maybe you should consider laying out the budget with separate lines for "Board giving" and "membership giving," and each one clarified with an average donation figure.  ("Board giving–8 people, $160,000, average $20,000 each; Membership giving–240 people, $24,000, average $100 each.")

Dimension #3: "It’s a good thing we have a wealthy synod that can cough up the money!"  Again, share with your membership the information you shared with me: in fact, the church outflow to the denomination is bigger than the church receipts from the denomination.

Dimension #4: "They’re asking the whole group; no one will notice my individual participation–or lack of it."  If there are half a dozen wealthy individuals in the congregation who are not living up to your hopes and expectations for their generosity, then there are half a dozen individual conversations waiting to be had.  Your Board can divide up the task (and it’s always easier if two Board members sit down with one pigeon, er, prospective donor) but not shirk it: have individual Board members take the head of household out to lunch/dinner/bedtime snack and say, look, we can’t make it without your support.  Tell him/her what the church needs and how his/her 10% tithe will help make that possible.  People find it easy to ignore general appeals and nearly impossible to ignore a straightforward request from someone else who’s already doing the thing requested.  The worst that will happen is the person will say, "But I can only tithe 5%"–and that’s a good start.  You might even say a damned good start.

Two final thoughts:

  • Don’t just say "We need money"–who doesn’t?  Explain exactly what you could do with the additional money.  Better yet, explain exactly what you can’t do–hire a new music director, renovate the sanctuary–that you know they desperately want done.
  • If membership dues are the solution–and they might be–let the suggestion come from the members.  People hate being taxed but will bear up under taxes they impose on themselves. 

The Nonprofiteer is a heathen and knows nothing of church etiquette.  Will her suggestions work?

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One Response to “Dear Nonprofiteer, How Much is Time Worth?”

  1. Cheri Coons Says:

    Really was intrigued by the self-proclaimed heathen Non-Profiteer’s excellent suggestions about approaching church membership regarding tithing. You go, Heathen Woman!

    I’m the president of the board of a spiritual community in Chicago that has recently concluded our second very successful pledge drive campaign. We actually exceeded our pledged amount in income last year, and doubled our pledge drive targeted amount for this coming year, and raised a significant amount over that in pledges. There’s one thing we do that might be of help to other church organizations who believe in the practice of tithing: we tithe, too! Our spiritual center tithes on all the income we receive. We give 10% of our earned church income to organizations and individuals who are doing spiritual work that inspires us. In other words, we mirror the practice we’re asking our membership to do. We also get the members involved in suggesting possible organizations and individuals to be the tithe recipients- and we have heard some wonderful stories and become acquainted with some amazing people in the process.

    But I think the most powerful motivation for tithing is the experience of our members-
    when they practice giving 10% of their income, they get it back multiplied. We ask members who have experienced this to share their stories during our pledge drive- it really is quite remarkable to hear the creative way the universe finds to get that money back to them…and more! It inspires people who are fearful of making a
    commitment to give to hear the stories of other people who have seen actual returns from this “investment” of tithing. I don’t know how or why tithing “works,” but I can’t argue with my personal experience of it, and am continually delighted by the way it’s working in our community.

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