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Megan Youngblood


Religious fundraising: 4 tips for building deeper connections with your audiences

July 12, 2016   //   Megan Youngblood

How does a congregation demonstrate its worthiness for major gifts?

Zehno sat down with Marilyn Blanchette—whose consulting firm L’Etoile Development Services teaches religious organizations how to engage donors and volunteers in more meaningful ways—to discuss how she mobilizes dioceses across the nation to change the way they approach philanthropy. Zehno partners with Marilyn on projects that help religious organizations bring their strategic plans and brands to life.

From deploying communications tools per audience to creating an advisory board aimed at top prospects, find out how you can adapt Marilyn’s best practices to your development operations.

Tip 1

Start with a strategic plan

Give your stakeholders a place at the table to help plan your organization’s future. You’ll gain major cred with your donors when you involve key players in the planning process.

But why haven’t religious organizations embraced strategic planning already?

Your leaders may lack prior experience in planning. Their primary focus is on pastoral responsibilities and guiding followers, not on running the organization like a nonprofit. Plus some leaders may dismiss strategic planning as a secular business model that doesn’t seem authentic to their congregations.

“The baby boomers were the first generation to start asking questions: What’s the mission? What’s the vision? Who’s driving it? Where’s your plan?” Marilyn says. “The church was not equipped to answer questions like that because it didn’t think it had to — and that people should just give out of a sense of duty.”

But that’s not the case anymore. As other nonprofits become more sophisticated, organized and vocal about their causes, your leadership can’t remain idle to strategic planning anymore.

Strategic planning and communications provide a strong platform to reinforce the idea of your organization as a vibrant resource for the community. They also create a platform for engaging people so they feel like real partners in a life-changing mission.

“There can be no better cultivation of donors than engaging as many of your stakeholders as possible in your strategic planning process,” Marilyn continues. “Donors feel like they are on the inside working side-by-side with religious leadership and have a place to express their hopes and dreams for the future. That is the greatest way to excite donors, engage them in a meaningful way and inspire generosity.”

Tip 2

Build an infrastructure

When you have thousands of supporters in your religious community, your leadership can’t possibly know everyone personally.

So create systems around your leaders to foster relationship building. Consider creating a separate 501c3 that supports your organization and provides a structure to appoint lay leadership. Many Catholic dioceses across the country have taken that step and have established their own Catholic foundations.

“Foundations create a place for those with great capacity to give, serve and lead on behalf of their church, congregation or religious order,” Marilyn says. “Creating a foundation and a board structure with those individuals who have the ability to make great gifts provides an immediate place for these people to serve. Your board will begin to behave like a close advisory group to religious leadership that helps figure out how the foundation can be structured.”


Focus on your brand identity and communications plan

Whether you’re Nike or the Catholic Church, your institution has a brand. And it’s based on perceptions that your audiences bring with them.

So how do you give new life to your brand? Intersect your mission and goals with what is relevant to your audiences. Whether you’re mailing a solicitation from the development office or an e-newsletter from a specific ministry, develop communications that reflect your brand identity: That means consistent messaging and a unified visual design.

Targeting your top prospects with tailored messages will help them understand why your organization is important and what makes your cause stand out from others vying for their gifts.

And because people give differently across generations — by mail, online, text or in-person—you must deploy consistent messages across a variety of communication tools. The key is to reach audiences where they prefer to receive information.

“We can’t leave behind the World War II generation who are our primary supporters, and traditional forms of communication cannot be abandoned,” Marilyn says. “We have to honor those places where they receive communication: a newsletter that comes in their mailbox, the parish bulletin, their local Catholic newspaper that comes to their door. But we must adapt that content to places where baby boomers and millenials will read it, whether it be on a website, on their phones or in a blog.”

Tip 4

Include internal audiences — and your closest external partners — in your communications plan

Don’t forget about the audiences that know your organization best.

Create champions, internal and external, for your cause who value the impact of your organization and can spread the word.

These champions could be your sisters or brothers out in the community; lay teachers at affiliated schools; students, parents and alumni; lay staff throughout a church, congregation or other ministry sites; local community planning partners; food pantry volunteers; or artists and musicians who showcase their work where you provide services.

When these audiences understand your organization’s values and priorities — and feel positive about its ongoing impact in the community — they become natural conduits for sharing your brand through everyday interactions.

Current donors also can become strong brand ambassadors for your organization. If donors are kept informed and engaged, they will spread the word about your work and are more likely to deepen their commitment and give repeatedly over time.

Learn more

Discover how Zehno helps religious organizations communicate with today’s audiences. When the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose partnered with Zehno on its brand program, the organization had a small loyal base of supporters. But most Bay Area residents outside this tight-knit group were unfamiliar with the congregation.

Read how Zehno’s partnership with the sisters helped them reach new audiences and fulfill a $20 million campaign goal to expand their outreach, share their Motherhouse campus and foster a circle of mission-aligned partner organizations.

Read the case study.

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