Finding the Funding to Bring Renderings to Life

Volume 48, Issue 2 :: By Robert Evans

Creative architectural renderings for houses of worship tend to excite my visual imagination. I am particularly interested in how architects tackle the challenge of renovating and repurposing an existing space for contemporary uses. Renderings frame possibilities about the spaces we imagine, and draw the connection between public spaces and our interior selves. The most successful sanctuary designs capture the intersection of public and private spheres. At their best, our worship spaces serve to convene community and facilitate private prayer. They marry the terrestrial with the ethereal and serve as the setting for expressing our innermost hopes, experiencing our most profound joys, and seeking comfort for our deepest sorrows.

Evans-GraphAs a fundraising consultant serving congregations of all types, the question I repeatedly face is: How can we make these renderings come to life? How do we bring 21st-century sanctuaries to life? Visions are wonderful things, but dollars are needed to realize visions in the physical world. As someone who has consulted with houses of worship across the country, I have seen the fiscal challenges that all congregations are facing – not only for completing big projects, but simply for paying the bills. I have also seen, time and again, that while it may at times seem like they are swimming upstream, congregations can raise the dollars they need. There are steps they can take that, while not foolproof, can certainly maximize chances of success.

Let me lay out today’s fundraising landscape and dispel several misconceptions. For a few years after the economic meltdown, I did not encounter many renderings at all. The Great Recession – which officially lasted from 2007-2009 but really didn’t abate until 2011 – put a deep chill in construction projects for houses of worship. Congregations weren’t raising money or making plans to build. Many congregations faced budgetary shortfalls and went into belt-tightening mode. At around the same time, across religious and denominational landscapes, many communities de-emphasized buildings and grand structures, focusing instead on creating intimate, personal experiences in the community. In the Evangelical world, there was a tremendous proliferation of small groups meeting weekly in members’ homes. In the Jewish urban community, young 20- and 30-somethings in cities began eschewing established congregations in favor of independent prayer groups or “Indie Minyans,” often held in rented, nondescript settings. But many of the people who founded these prayer groups returned to traditional congregations when they had children and required a more full-service environment.

Certainly, faith communities have embraced technology to expand their reach and there are even some congregations that exist wholly online. But meeting and gathering for public prayer is not going away and as long as congregations exist–they will need buildings.  Buildings need to be repaired and congregations outgrow their previous homes and need to find new spaces. Thankfully, we have seen the economy – and philanthropy – bounce back and many congregations across the country and across the religious spectrum have put capital projects back on the agenda.

I am heartened to once again see architectural renderings and to be consulted about capital projects for houses of worship. But this doesn’t mean fundraising for capital projects has become easy. In fact, there are some long-term trends making such fundraising much more challenging for houses of worship. The recent Pew Research Center study, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” shows an increase in the number of Americans unaffiliated with any congregations, with about one-third of adults in their late 20s and early 30s saying they have no religious affiliation. As Americans have been drifting away from organized religion – with the exception of Evangelical Christian denominations and the Church of Latter Day Saints – giving to religious organizations has been experiencing a slow and steady decline. In the 1980s, donating to religion accounted for more than 50 percent of all charitable contributions. Today, that figure is slightly less than one-third. From 2009 – 2013 overall philanthropic giving in the US grew by 12.3 percent while giving to religious organizations declined by 2.4 percent, according to Giving USA, the annual survey of American philanthropy. But there is good news: Across the board, 2014 was a banner year for giving. According to the most recent Giving USA survey, released on June 16 (see the pie graph), Americans gave a total of $358 to charity, with 32 percent going to religious organizations. (These are houses of worship and other organizations, such as seminaries, with a religious purpose. Faith-based social service agencies are not included in this total.) Giving to religious organizations increased by 2.5 percent between 2013 and 2014, totaling $114.90 billion for the year. This was the highest total ever recorded in the 60-year history of Giving USA.

So, there are many challenges and a few bright spots when it comes to fundraising for houses of worship. Though this article is focused on capital projects, nearly everything I will offer applies to endowment building as well – a highly underutilized and underappreciated aspect of development in the congregational world. There are certain concrete and critical steps that houses of worship can and must take to increase their chances of fundraising success. Here are a few that congregations can’t afford to miss.

Form a Lay Committee  All houses of worship should form and maintain formal development committees to oversee annual appeals and ongoing fundraising efforts. Having an established volunteer body dedicated to development allows houses of worship to harness the talents, contacts, and experience of its members. Lay leaders can provide valuable insight to clergy and professional staff regarding the messaging that will inspire members to give. Forming a committee also expresses the importance of development to the congregational agenda. After all, development affects all other aspects of congregational activities. Running a capital campaign is an entirely different undertaking. A much more robust organizational structure will be needed to oversee a campaign, as opposed to routine development activities. Before getting underway, I recommend that all congregations consider undergoing a Pre-Campaign Assessment, so leaders can set a realistic campaign goal and formulate a well-conceived plan. A capital campaign requires a tremendous amount of buy-in from a wide base of people and usually requires a communal effort to pull off.

Involve Clergy  Whether a congregation is conducting an annual appeal or running a major campaign, a basic rule dictates that clergy play a leading role. Too often, clergy members leave development work to support staff or to volunteers. Yes, religious leaders have full plates and shouldn’t necessarily be sweating the small details of fundraising. But they must be involved and must communicate what the congregation’s needs are and the role that philanthropy can play. Speaking from the pulpit about giving is important, but it is not enough. Clergy members may be most effective in private meetings, where they can cite a specific amount and highlight vision as well as facility requirements.

Create Gift Categories  Many people give, in part, because they are hoping to be recognized, even if they don’t admit it to themselves or others. No house of worship can discount the role that ego plays in shaping gifts. Pursued in an honest and ethical fashion, houses of worship can harness the desire of philanthropists for public recognition toward a sacred purpose. We suggest creating gift recognition categories. Highlight the names of individuals who make major gifts.

Gift-Acceptance Guidelines  What are gift-acceptance guidelines? They are a set of policies that govern all gifts that are not in the form of cash. Will the congregation accept gifts of real estate, life insurance policies, valuable paintings, or a vintage wine collection? While the board can’t foresee every scenario, congregations need to adopt general principles, while being as specific as possible, to prevent potential misunderstandings.

Conduct Research  Perhaps there is no more important ingredient to any fundraising campaign than donor research. Large universities and hospitals devote whole teams to learning more about the giving habits of donors and potential donors. No house of worship or nonprofit can match the research prowess of an institution such as the University of Pennsylvania, but a lot can be done with limited human and financial resources. Congregations can and should learn a great deal about the gift capacities of members before approaching them for a gift. A strong research process is about asking the question: What is important to them? What other kinds of organizations have members supported and in what amount? A great deal can and should be learned before ever approaching a member for a gift. Congregations should invest in wealth screening software and train staff in how to maximize its usefulness.

A Perfect Partnership: Architects and Fundraisers  Architects and fundraising counsel make natural partners in completing the complex task of building a new house of worship or renovating an existing one. By working together, architects and fundraisers can create a final outcome that is transformational and exhilarating. The leaders of capital campaigns should make effective use of architectural renderings and the architects themselves. Renderings help inspire donors and create excitement. Architects can be ideal speakers at donor acknowledgement programs and other campaign events. Why should architects lend their time? Well, no one wants to see a congregation successfully raise money for a project more than the architect hired to design it.

There is no doubt that today’s houses of worship face a difficult fundraising landscape. But in the years since the Great Recession, I have seen a number of success stories, campaigns that exceeded nearly all expectations. The truth is that fundraising is a communal effort. Of course, there needs to be a top-down strategy, but generally speaking the more that members of a congregation are willing to put in time to solicit others and embrace fundraising as part of the responsibility of being a congregant, the more successful the congregation will be in fundraising and serving its members’ spiritual and communal needs.

Few things motivate donors like architectural renderings, which show donors that their money is going to something tangible. I argue that endowment campaigns should be equally as exciting and that donors should not be overly fixated on buildings. Still, in an age when America’s spiritual landscape is rapidly changing, when fewer Americans identify as a member of a particular faith, it says something when a congregation is able to complete a major capital project. Renderings are important, but seeing the completed project is even better. Let us collectively work to turn more renderings into buildings and make more positive statements about the meaningfulness of faith and community in our lives.

Robert Evans is President of the Evans Consulting Group, a suburban Philadelphia-based firm that helps nonprofits meet and exceed their strategic and fundraising goals. He has more than 35 years of experience working on fundraising campaigns in major metropolitan areas across the country. Regarded as an authority on campaign strategy, Evans is known for his inventive planning and execution, which has enabled clients to reach development goals even in the most challenging circumstances. A member of the Giving USA editorial review, he is a frequent blogger and op-ed writer. He can be reached at:

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