A New Model for Fundraising
An Interview with Nathan Jones
After writing a dozen or so articles on the Bible translation industry for MinistryWatch, several readers pointed out to me that the practice of support-raising might be contributing to the problems those articles highlighted.
Support raising is not limited to Bible translation organizations. College ministries such as Cru, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and the Navigators depend on support raising. Most missions organizations employ the practice.
The practice of support raising has a lot to recommend it. It allows donors to support people they know and trust. It has allowed some of the largest Christian ministries in the country to grow large quickly, and stay large over time.
But there are problems. Fundraising is often not a core skill of someone called to ministry. A ministry might claim that it spends only seven or eight percent of its revenue on fundraising, and that percentage looks good. But it usually does not include the time the missionary spends maintaining his or her support team. Therefore, the reported percentage spent on fundraising is often artificially low.
Further, missionaries who raise their own support may feel autonomous, and start to behave that way, ignoring or paying only lip service to the sending organization’s strategic objectives.
All of these issues lead to this question: Is there a better way?
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Nathan Jones thinks there might be. He is the president of the Youth For Christ Foundation, and has been involved in fundraising for decades. He champions a hybrid model of support raising that allows ministry staff to focus more time on those areas in which they are truly gifted, which are consistent with their calling, and which bring them joy. I recently had an interview with him via zoom. This transcript is edited for clarity.
Warren Smith: Nathan, you think the current model of support raising should change. How did you come to that conclusion?
Nathan Jones: My journey started right out of college by raising personal support in order to go on staff with Prison Fellowship. I was an experiment. Prison Fellowship had not used that model before. The transition became such a challenge that they ended up moving away from it after three or four years, but that was where I cut my teeth on the personal support model.
Then I went to work for Youth for Christ in the Denver area. I was then overseeing a department of staff who were raising their support. I was overseeing the juvenile justice ministry and we had chaplains in the juvenile detention centers around Denver.
One of those chaplains was called to plant a church in another part of the country, so he vacated that post. He took his support team with him, so suddenly I had no money, but I still had to fill that spot.
The only thing I could do was fill it myself, even though I wasn’t called to that. I was called to run the program, not be the chaplain, but I found myself living outside of my gifting for that season, until we could find somebody to raise their personal support. It got me thinking there’s got to be a better way.
I went back to work on the national development team at prison fellowship, and it was back the other extreme. Fundraising was centralized. The team was very efficient because we had Chuck Colson. But it was centralized and our staff were not engaged at all.
So I started studying scripture. What can we learn from scripture? I found myself drawn to the example of Moses leading the Israelites to build the tabernacle. God instructs them to consider how the Lord’s Spirit is stirring in their heart and then respond to that.
It becomes a matter of calling and giftedness. Some are called to go. Some are called to give. Others were called to apply the skill of their hand. Organizations today tend to say one size fits all. The organization that requires its staff to raise personal support essentially is asking that staff person to be their own marketing director, their own major gift officer, their own video producer, their own event manager. That doesn’t allow for the gifts of the body to be expressed.
But, at the same time, each individual staff person has a set of relationships that could be engaged in that mission. I’ve spent the last decade asking how an organization strike the balance by engaging its staff in the process of fundraising and development. When that happens, we see more efficient fundraising. We see more joy, fun. More collaborative approaches, less competition.
On the other hand, where you have a staff person raising personal support, if the central office goes to that donor, it’s like, don’t touch my donor. In a more collaborative approach, we eliminate that competition.
WS: So you’re not saying that support raising is evil. You’re not taking the George Mueller approach of never asking and just waiting for the money to arrive. Which, by the way, I don’t think that approach is completely biblical, either.
NJ: George Mueller was a fantastic storyteller and a spiritual leader who fervently prayed. Those should be parts of any fundraising strategy.
WS: Can you help me understand the other parts? I have looked at organizations such as Wycliffe Bible Translators with 2,500 people, most of whom raise their own support. I see Cru. I don’t even know how many people are on Cru’s staff, but probably 20,000 people. The vast majority raise their own support. And all of a sudden you walk in and try to make this massive culture shift. That sounds like a recipe for disaster. So can this shift happen incrementally? If so, what would be the first couple of things that you would do?
NJ: It has to be done incrementally.
There are four or five different dimensions inside of what I would call the missionary versus mission funding continuum. I would start with raising support. I would ask if they are telling the story and sharing the vision of the entire organization, or just their little piece of the story.
But the big change happens when you talk about fund structures. The old model is every staff person has a bucket with their name on it. They’ve got to fill that bucket with cash.
What if we flip that so every staff person has a set of relationships? To make this organization work, we need to see X number of dollars come from those relationships into the central bucket of funds.
WS: OK, but what about the donor who says, “Hey, Nathan, I love you, but I’m not so sure about your organization. I don’t want my donations to go into the central bucket.”
NJ: To that person I would say: “If you’re most comfortable with investing in my work, I still have a designated fund that would allow you to give to what I’m doing.”
The real shift is that the organization doesn’t hold the staff person accountable to the quota of that bucket, but gives them credit for all the revenue that would come in from relationships that the staff member brought to the organization.
WS: Okay. But what happens when that staff member’s bucket is only half full? That’s where the rubber meets the road. The organization has to say, we really believe in this strategy and we’re going to give that staff member a full salary, even though it buckets only half full.
NJ: The organization needs to look at the full set of revenue, the full revenue coming in from the whole set of relationships, even if it’s not all going into that staff bucket. You’ve got to move from fund focus to relationship focused.
That allows you to take the next step and deploy people according to their gift set. So rather than even worrying about a revenue tied to a staff person, I’d like to develop a 10-question questionnaire to identify one of six or eight areas of development and fundraising that a person is gifted and strong at. Maybe they’re a good writer, maybe they’re good at event hosting. Maybe they’re good at face-to-face meetings. Maybe they’re good at storytelling. So we say, okay, as it relates to your involvement in fundraising, we want you to stay within the lane of your gift set.
WS: Who’s doing that? Are you guys doing that at Youth for Christ?
NJ: What I have found is very few are doing it. A lot are talking about it. At YFC we’ve been implementing these changes. We have 150 individual chapters. We don’t wave a magic wand and everything changes. But we’ve been implementing changes in the national office to make this model work, and chapters are catching wind and are implementing it. So some of our chapters are farther along than others. That’s why I like to break it into these four or five different dimensions and say, if you’re going to start somewhere, start here.
WS: Anyone else?
NJ: There are a number of mid to large-sized organizations considering this, and the questions they are dealing with are these: How can we be effective stewards, and how can we restore joy to the process. How can we engage staff in this process in a way that’s more joyful.
When I was at Prison Fellowship, our local staff was not doing any fundraising. But I would go to a local executive director and I say, “I’d love to bring a group of donors in, to see programming in the prison.” They love it. They jumped on it. It was a good showcase for their work.
There’s a hunger to be engaged at some level in fundraising development, but not the old model where I would say to that executive director, you’ve got to raise your own support. However, I said to him, “I’ll bring the people, you throw the party and showcase your work.” They loved it.