Raising Money from Millennials
They’re in debt. They don’t trust institutions. But they will give generously to your church if you approach them in the right way.
This was the largest capital campaign in our church’s history, so my wife and I were asked to meet face-to-face with key leaders. As Karen and I drove to Caribou Coffee to meet a twenty-something couple in our church, I thought, This meeting may not be easy. Mark and Debbie care so passionately about social justice that they moved into the lowest-income apartment complex in our area, and they have the bedbug bites to prove their commitment. Now we’d be asking them to give, when much of their gift would go to build a new sanctuary for our suburban congregation.
We warmed up by asking what Mark and Donna thought about Sunday’s sermon, in which our senior pastor kicked off the public phase of the campaign with a passionate message about God’s call to Abram to “Go.”
Mark was direct: “C’mon, just because God told Abram to go to a new land doesn’t mean God is telling our church to buy a new building.”
Hmmm. Raising money from Millennials is not going to be easy, I realized.
Modifying the traditional campaign
Church capital campaigns follow a pattern: private phase, public phase, advance-commitment night, commitment Sunday, etc. While this traditional pattern has been tested over decades, it’s important to remember it was not designed by Millennials (people born roughly between 1980 and 2000). In fact, many campaigns essentially write off Millennials and assume the heavy giving will be done by Builders or Baby Boomers. This is not surprising, since Millennials have been criticized, as Drew Dyck wrote in Leadership Journal, as “restless, entitled, bloated self-esteem, desultory work patterns, twitter-sized attention spans—pick your pejorative.”
But our church did not have that luxury: 80 percent of our adults are under age 40. Either Millennials got behind this campaign or we didn’t have one.
So we assertively modified the traditional campaign. This led to animated conversations with our capital-campaign consultant. But that give-and-take made the campaign right for our Millennials.
It made us appreciate our consultant all the more (because she was willing to adjust traditional approaches but wisely kept us from jettisoning too much). And it led to a campaign that exceeded our expectations. Here’s what we learned.
1. Provide real help for people in real need.
Millennials’ gift to the church, in my opinion, is their outward focus; they define greatness as serving others.
When our church bought a 50-year-old plastics factory and wanted to raise money to renovate it for a sanctuary, classrooms, and office, we got questions.
Some of our Baby Boomers worried, “Can we make a deserted factory beautiful enough to reflect our worship of God?”
Some of our Millennials worried, “Will we make our own church so nice that we hurt our ability to help people in Section 8 housing?”
Our campaign’s tagline was “For the Lord, the Lost, and the Least,” and Millennials were the most likely to ask about that final word.
We won over many Millennials by the undeniable fact that this factory was scrappy and that we purchased it at auction for a startlingly low price.
We also used the campaign to increase our giving to people in need. We said publicly: “We are not going to build this sanctuary on the backs of the poor and the trafficked. We are not going to ask our missionaries to live on less for the next two years. Instead, at the very time when we need every dollar for this building, we are going to boost our outward giving by 26 percent.”
Millennials will dig deep as they see your church trying to “live simply so that others may simply live.”
2. Dial down the hype.
Run each statement, fact, goal, or idea you plan to communicate through a brutal-honesty filter, because the Millennial generation is conditioned to distrust the institution and to question the inauthentic.
For example, on our main campaign video, I didn’t say, “In our rented facilities now, children’s ministry is practically impossible.” Instead, I said, “While not impossible to do now, it’s kind of hard.”
This feels counterintuitive, and you may feel you’re lowering urgency, excitement, and the call to action. But authenticity is non-negotiable.
And because Millennials tend to be skeptical, it’s impossible to communicate too clearly or too exactly where all the money is going.
3. Find ways for everyone to make the team.
Recently I heard a 40-something pastor mock the fact that Millennials grew up on soccer teams where at the end-of-year banquet, everyone got a trophy. But why not let that “everyone is special” dynamic work for you?
Most capital campaigns, to increase giving, create a culture of exclusivity. The private phase focuses on elite gatherings of major donors. That motivated Boomers—”I got on the elite team.” It bothers Millennials. In our campaign, a few Millennials asked, “Are there secret meetings?”
So in our private phase, we insisted that gatherings include not just major givers but also major servers, people who give generously of their time.
We grew the private-phase invitation list to about a third of our entire congregation. And on advance-commitment night, we didn’t restrict the event to our big givers. Instead, we invited anyone who was ready to make his or her commitment early.
Probably the simplest and best way to ensure that Millennials won’t feel left out is to recruit some Millennials for your campaign leadership team.
4. Talk honestly about debt.
Debt is a fact of American life: for households with credit-card debt, the average is $15,799. But Millennials feel the vise grip of debt more painfully than most.
Average debt for graduating college seniors is more than $23,000, and recent graduates stumble in paying this back, when the only jobs they’re finding are part-time, lower-paying, service-sector. Add in a car loan, and an occasional bad spending decision, and you understand why the most-common question I got during the campaign was, “I want to give, but I have a lot of debt to pay off. What should I do?”
So it’s not enough to talk in glowing terms about faith and generosity and “not equal gifts but equal sacrifice.” We have to talk about the realpolitik of debt.
My response to the reality of Millennials’ debt and their calling to give was posted on our church blog. (See the sidebar accompanying this article.) Basically the issue is this:
Both paying off your debts and giving generously are important. Paying off your debts must be a high priority for your financial life. Having said that, I do not advise waiting until your debts are fully paid off before giving to God. You need to give for your spiritual health, for your connection to the church, and for your own dignity.
So I encouraged them to give something now. And over time, as they pay down debts, they will gain the freedom to give more.
We also asked Dawn, a thirty-something leader in our church, to give a testimony. She told how in the past year she and her husband had been hit by car repairs, an unexpected home repair, and medical bills, so they were not sure how they could give extra.
As they prayed about it, they discovered selling used boots and other items online. Many people told me they appreciated her story because it was their story, too.
5. Keep tech relational.
According to a MillennialDonors.com study, 71 percent of Millennials get information about a nonprofit through web searches. As a result, many people assume the best way to motivate the giving from Millennials is through technology. But in our experience, though tech is helpful, it will not replace relationship; you still need to schedule as many face-to-face meetings as time will allow. And as you do communicate via tech (we used our church website, blog, Facebook account, and Twitter, plus we built a campaign microsite and added online giving, which we didn’t have before), don’t think “impressive.” Think “relationship building,” which for Millennials means “authentic,” “fun,” “simple,” and “sharing of stories.”
In all our tech, we invited people to tell their stories of generosity and transformation. Some people wrote brief stories; others created YouTube videos.
Our church must be one of the few left in America that does not show videos in worship services, but we got huge wins with a 14-minute video that we showed after services one Sunday. On it Jeff and Kimberly, a Millennial couple, talked honestly about their marital separation and loss of a child, and how the church had walked with them through those crises.
In another video, “Generous Giraffe,” (vimeo.com/31145505) our artists created a fun singalong for kids. One young family visited our church for the first time because they saw the video online.
6. Set the threshold low and the participation high.
We had a financial goal, but what we emphasized more was a participation goal: “We want 100 percent of our members and regular attenders to give.” To increase participation, we did two things.
First, we ran a “one-fund campaign” (as our consultant astutely advised), in which the general fund and building fund and mission fund are combined. That way, every dollar someone has been giving, or starts to give, contributes to the whole ministry. It sets the threshold low so that everyone can participate.
Second, we took the traditional gifts chart—we need so many gifts of this amount, and so many of this amount, etc.—and shifted it downward: fewer of the really big gifts, and lots more of the really small gifts.
Many Millennials think, I don’t have much to give. We said, “If every college student here gives $10 a week, that would yield over $150,000.”
How did we do on participation? We hit 81 percent, a little lower than we’d hoped, but we were delighted that 72 commitments came from people who had never given to our church before.
7. Wrestle your demons to the mat (Millennials can tell if you haven’t).
Millennials can read you as a leader. They may not do so perfectly, but in general, their radar picks up whether you are giving sacrificially, whether you are anxious and therefore pressuring people, and whether this campaign is primarily about you.
Though they tend to distrust institutions, they will trust a leader who is honest and unafraid to be in personal contact and who will let them ask hard questions. This is impossible to do, though, if you’re still anxious about whether your church is going to reach its financial goal.
To get free from that anxiety, and as a result, to gain an inner freedom that you can extend to others, comes through prayer and hearing the Word of God. I must confess that we were already into the public phase of our campaign before I got there, primarily through hearing a sermon by our senior pastor.
It also took me time to break through to the freedom of giving sacrificially. I knew the campaign was coming, months beforehand, when the Lord spoke to me about giving a number that was, for me and my wife, radical. Money is inherently self-deceptive, though, so it took fasting and prayer and conversation before we finally could give that number with unity and joy.
But once I was free from anxiety and free to obey, what a freedom I felt to pastor! With the weak I could be tender and genuinely release them from any pressure to give; with the strong, I could challenge them boldly.
And when I saw the results from Commitment Sunday, I rejoiced. It’s not true that Millennials do not want to commit. It may be that we seldom ask them in ways that release their passion: to belong to an authentic community that is making the world a better place and glorifying the one who is eternal.
Questions Millennials Ask about Giving
And three pastoral answers.
Q: I want to give to this initiative, but I have a lot of debts to pay off. What should I do?
A: One reason debt is such a pain is that it limits our freedom. It cuts off our choices. I believe that Christians must honor their creditors and pay off their debts: as Paul taught, “Let no debt remain outstanding” (Rom. 13:8). And Jesus teaches in Mark 7:9-13 that it’s not right to use a charitable donation as a way to avoid our prior commitment to love our neighbor.
So the painful reality is that paying off your debts must be a high priority for your financial life.
Having said that, do not wait until your debts are fully paid off before giving to God. You need to give for your spiritual health, for your connection to the church, and for your own dignity.
As we heard in a sermon, “God will deny no one the honor of giving.” Your giving will be lower than you want it to be right now, but over time, as you pay down debts, you will regain the freedom to give more.
Q: I can’t decide how much to give. Part of me wants to give a large, reckless number. Another part of me knows I’ll need some money for expenses coming up.
A: That’s normal. I believe it’s in part because the Bible has several overarching themes about money that it holds in creative tension.
One biblical theme is what I would call the “Prudence” theme: work hard and prepare now for future need (Prov. 6:6-8) and provide for your family (1 Tim. 5:8).
But another biblical theme is the “Carefree” theme: don’t store up treasures on earth (Matt. 6:19), give to the needy (Matt. 6:2), and don’t worry about your food and clothing (Matt. 6:25-27).
How do you honor both themes? That requires a lot of prayer and conversation with wise spiritual friends and mentors. You’ll know you’ve reached the right number, though, because it will have these three qualities.
1. It’s not sparing but generous. “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously” (2 Cor. 9:6)
2. It’s not under compulsion but freely chosen. “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion” (2 Cor. 9:7). You should be able to say of your gift: “I chose this. I wanted this. I wasn’t manipulated or guilt-ed into it.”
3. It’s not given reluctantly but cheerfully. “For God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7).
Q: What if I want to give more, and my spouse wants to give less?
A: It’s funny how that happens. In matters of giving, one person is usually the accelerator and the other is the brake. God must think the car needs both!
The Bible places such a high premium on unity in marriage (“the two shall become one”) that I think couples should keep talking until they reach a number they both feel good about. There must be zero coercion.
This may mean that the person who wants to give less, gradually comes to accept a higher number. Or it may mean the person who wants to give more yields the right of way and accepts a lower number, knowing that this is the number that can be given with joy and with unity.
It’s in this kind of decision that married people learn how to do what Paul said: “submit to one another” and to “bear with the failings of the weak.”
When couples bring this spirit to “how much should we give?” they end up closer to each other.—Kevin Miller
The above article, “Raising Money from Millennials,” is written by Kevin Miller. The article was excerpted from: www.christianitytoday.com web site. June 2012
The material is most likely copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.