We all have competing demands for our time and resources. After the basics of food, shelter and education for our families we’re involved in things to better our world — volunteering and giving to nonprofits and/or to our church. In this way we can all “do good” in our community in ways big and small.
Our own contributions may seem meager and insignificant, but pooled together it can make a difference. I’d like to highlight some of the ways in which giving to my church and giving to the United Way are similar and different.
Looking at it dispassionately: both the church and any nonprofit like the United Way seek to serve our communities. Both have the same issues of (a) identifying programs worthy of funding according to our mission, (b) raising funds for those purposes, and (c) reporting back to membership periodically on how it went, i.e measurement.
First, the Church: as a 3-year member of the Vestry (Board member to you) at Saint John Episcopal, I get to see firsthand how our parish allocates scarce funds according to our Christian mission. We balance the needs of taking care of our physical infrastructure (a beautiful, English-style parish church) with worship, development of Christian values to our children, outreach to our older members, plus support efforts in the 61st & Peoria area — South Tulsa Community House and McClure Elementary. We also maintain relationships with Habitat for Humanity and the Iron Gate Food Pantry, to name a couple.
As a church, some of our members take part in the Outreach Committee — which both evaluates needs and puts boots on the ground with programs who get our funding and support. I bet it’s similar at your church, too. The funding decisions reside with our Rector and the Vestry, making sure the efforts match our goals.
Big donor/parishioners occasionally are asked (or come forward on their own) to contribute to big-ticket items or projects. These donations are above and beyond their regular giving to the operating fund. And this is starting to trickle down into other areas: projects and funding opportunities are starting to have internal sponsors — parishioners who contact other members to join in donating to these earmarked efforts. Some could describe this as “outsourcing” the fundraising function to someone other than the Rector or Minister.
Charles LaFond, the Rev. Canon Steward of The Cathedral of Saint John in the Wilderness in Denver has written about this topic, which you can peruse at Fearless Church Fundraising. I had the opportunity to hear him at a seminar in 2015, and I can see many similarities in his stance and some of the personal “asks” we do at the United Way — we seek to build an interest profile of a potential donor in order to better “qualify” the ask to match his/her interest. For example, if a donor has a special zeal for helping the homeless, we seek to show that donor our outcomes and accomplishments in that area.
Like the church’s Outreach Committee, at the United Way we have a structure in place that seeks to determine where the community needs are each year. I’ve written about that earlier here. We have a mandate from our board and supporters to address needs in the areas of Health, Education, and Financial Stability.
What’s RUM in the title above, you wonder? That’s “Resources Under Management.” It’s a percentage that we in the United Way world use to describe the funds we have complete discretion over. RUM is a Very Good Thing: to me, it’s a measurable indicator of how much the community trusts our judgement. Ours has always been in excess of 90%. We’ve always sought to discourage Designations (our word for money you’ll donate to us, but with strings attached that it goes only to a specific named organization).
What I’m saying: organizations that seek to do good do best when funds are given with complete trust. Do your research upfront, then trust that your “giving organization of choice” will devote resources where there’s need. If you want to put your dear loved one’s name on a brass plaque somewhere with your gift, fine. But in my view that’s not philanthropy anymore, but a transaction: maybe in the category of “enhancing your brand.”
I always like to think of Rabbi Maimonides’ 2nd rung of giving as being a better approach. Give quietly and in reverence.
I often describe the United Way as “the communities’ nonprofit investment manager” — we do the legwork of determining need so you don’t have to. Here’s hoping your church does the same, and has the free resources to support their mission, large and small.