What if Your Congregation Has Become Reliant on One Donor’s Giving? 

Results and wisdom from a survey with 10 top-giver households and 70 pastors.

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A couple months ago, Grace invited me to write a blog on this question: “What if your congregation has become reliant on one donor’s giving?”

The question made me curious. It raised a number of other questions for me:

  1. I wonder how common a concern about over-reliance this is, and who shares it.
  2. I wonder how top givers think about these matters.
  3. I wonder what ideas would be helpful to pastors, congregations who are in this bind.

Rethinking the question gave me the opportunity to get input from two groups so I interviewed 10 top giver households and surveyed 70 pastors online.

Top Congregational Givers

At Luther Seminary, I am a “Philanthropic Adviser,” or major gift officer. I work with deeply committed donors who belong to a church, have high capacity to give, and are generous with many organizations, including Luther Seminary. Some things I learned from these Christian Philanthropists:

  • They understand that they are among the congregation’s highest givers. Some of these people have an awareness that they are an example for others.  
  • They do not want, and seek to avoid, extra influence or attention in the congregation.
  • They are thoughtful about the possibility that their giving suppresses the amount that others give, but that’s not why they don’t give even more…
  • Their congregation may be #1 in their heart, but more than half of these top givers make their greatest gifts to other places: social ministries, schools, healthcare, and other expressions of the church. How much they give to their congregation is considered together with all these other gifts.  And they wish their pastors knew and understood this.
  • When asked for one word that described how they felt about their giving to the congregation, the top responses were “grateful” and “blessed.” No negative feelings came out.

Pastors

On Facebook, pastors volunteered to take a brief survey. 70 respondents shared these things:

  • 48% worry that their congregation is dependent on top givers.
  • The greatest percentage of concerned pastors serve a congregation with a budget $100,000-$250,000. 
  • Most pastors know for certain, or believe they know, who their top givers are. They don’t assume that the top giver is their wealthiest church member.
  • About half said they have been in conversation with the top givers about their stewardship;  almost no pastors expressed a reluctance to do so, or a belief that doing so would be inappropriate.
  • 17% report that the top giver threatened to withhold funds and 20% say their top giver expects extra influence in the congregation.  
  • When asked for one word to sum up how they feel about their top giver, some expressed frustration, anger, or worry.  By far the majority said “grateful,” “generous,” “thankful.”

Let me offer some thoughts for pastors about their top givers.

You know the “80/20 Rule”?  (80% of WHATEVER—in this case, MONEY—comes from 20% of the people..)  My advice? Don’t fight it. Whatever the actual percentages may be in your context, I urge you to accept that there will always be disproportionately top givers, and most of them can be trusted.  

  • Become curious about them.  
  • Listen to how they think through their decisions.  
  • Be surprised by the complexity and the simplicity of their philanthropy.  
  • Learn from them about the difference between wealth and money.  
  • Consider sharing your concern about over-reliance with them, and pray with them about it.

At the same time as you grow your relationship with these top givers, shift the narrative away from them. Don’t let the Church Council dwell on scenarios they can’t control—“What if they leave?” “What happens when they die?” Instead, help everyone grow in their own giving.  Challenge the congregation to give more benevolence, in the budget and in effort. Remind people that you are always 100% reliant on gifts. It’s a scary business model, until you embrace it. Then, it’s no longer scary!

Difficult Donors

The great majority of top givers are benevolent. Even so, we must acknowledge the pain and insecurity that some pastors and congregations experience when their top giver manipulates, demands, or threatens. 

  • God Changes Hearts: First, remember that your goal is for God to change hearts, not for you to preserve their gift to the congregation. Philanthropists are made, not born.  People can grow into a new way of understanding their wealth and their giving. This only happens through relationships, and an experience of giving. Remember, philanthropists want to make gifts in many directions.
  • Grouchy Givers: When a grouchy top giver issues a threat to withhold, you might ask questions, “Where would you rather make your gift?  What would bring you the most joy?  Can I help you find out how to make that gift?” These are good questions to ask any donor, but don’t ask unless you can follow through. At best, you might help a grouchy giver start to become a philanthropist, giving in many directions and having a good time with it.  You decide if it’s worth a try. At a minimum, if you don’t play the manipulator’s game, it might at least take away some leverage.
  • Be A Pastor: To whatever extent possible, just be their pastor. You can define the kind of relationship you would prefer to have with them. Pastors know very well that “hurt people hurt people.” One who uses a gift as a weapon has probably been wounded by that very method. Lord, have mercy.  You can’t change them. But God can.  
  • Refocus the Narrative: Whether these people are changed or not, leaders can always refocus the narrative. The less your congregational leaders talk about the withholder, the less fuel for the flame. Keep the focus on your willing disciples, and the community you strive to serve. Help everyone become a philanthropist!

Final Thoughts: Wealth is not the same as money; the offering plate isn’t the only fountain of support. You can always work to develop estate gifts to the congregation. Create or review your policies; put leaders in place; lift this up as an opportunity. There are many resources available to you in this area.

Blessings to you, Stewardship Leaders. May God multiply your prayerful efforts!

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