Check, please

I recently attended a fundraising workshop sponsored by Mission Increase Foundation (an excellent organization committed to helping Christian non-profits build capacity), and the topic was how organizations manage information surrounding donors and their gifts. Our facilitator, Matt Bates, told a story about a large rescue mission that regularly received hundreds of gifts daily from donors around the world. Inside many of the checks sent to this organization were personal notes from the donors. Because all of the checks were processed in a separate office from the rest of the organization, largely by temp workers, the notes from faithful donors piled up in a corner, unread and forgotten.

As Matt reflected with us on the value of those forgotten notes and the journeys of individual donors they represent, he said this: “If you create a system that is transactional, then your relationships will become transactional.”

How true that is, really. I think about many critiques of the church today, and so much of the dissatisfaction I hear is the very thing Matt is describing. Transactional systems resulting in transactional relationships.


  1. excellent thoughts! i serve on the board of our local crisis pregnancy center. we have two folks who open all the mail together within the center, so any notes can be directed accordingly. also, our director personally handwrites a note on each thank you that is sent out. in this way, i think we minister not only to our clients but also to our donors. i sent the link for your entry to the director… along with a note of gratitude for what she and the staff do. thanks for

  2. (oops… i hate it when that happens! to continue….)
    thanks for reminding us that the personal touch is so necessary.

  3. Hi, great post and excellent insights. I hadn’t thought of it that way.

    I stumbled onto your blog via a link from a friend. keep it up!

  4. This is one of the reasons that YWAM maintains a direct link between donor and missionary. While it is processed through our org, the relationship is one-to-one. It is VERY helpful to maintain primarily a relational connection, not a transactional one.

    The challenge we are facing now, however, is that as this approach becomes established, fund raising for projects or programs becomes more difficult. The system works well with individuals, but is trickier with programs. Any suggestions?


  5. excellent post!
    For Jamie, perhaps enliven or link whatever program with a person or group of people…always make it about the people being helped, taught, etc.

    How would your post, Erika, pertain to the offering we collect in our local churches…is that relational or transactional, and does it depend on the size of the church?

  6. A subversive post. I like.

    Just reflecting out loud here, but couldn’t we take that idea a bit further even? Aren’t systems inherently transactional?

    Let’s say, as a case study, that that rescue mission then creates a system by which the temp workers can collect the notes, itemize them, and send biweekly emails to missionaries. Then the system fulfills the task of “streamlining” communication, yet fails to address what it seems you are talking about in this post: we can’t let the humanness of our relationships get taken over by the transactional aspect.

  7. I think there’s a big temptation in many aspects of church to make the system transactional, not just finances.

  8. Seems to me there’s a disconnect between the priorities of a particular subset of thoughtful Christian folks in the west trying to serve poor people overseas and the priorities of actual poor people overseas.

    Cutting edge and more prophetic Christian folks in the west are understandably pretty tired of the ‘reign’ of relatively impersonal and highly efficient ‘systems’ that produce more material and scientific and political progress than ever before in human history by far, but do it by degrading an older religious and tribal –and in many ways life giving–view of the importance of personal relationships where financial and political and social power come from who you know and how well you know them rather than what you can actually do practically to improve the lives of others.

    Many of the thoughtful Christian poor people I’ve met overseas, though, seem less prophetically interested in relational authenticity. Plenty of that to go around among the poorest of the poor. I think many of them would cast their vote, if they had one, for far more impersonal political and economic systems that would free them from the tyranny of an overemphasis on tribal and class and personal relationships.

    Difficult to know how to approach developing a ministry in the west that makes sense in the poor world.

    How do you satisfy the strong need among cutting edge western Christians for more ‘relational authenticity’ while giving top priority to the life and death need among poor folks around the world for more just and less personal and tribal and class based religious, economic and political organizations and systems?

    I don’t have lots of answers. Sometimes framing the questions from our experience as well as we can is the best way forward.

    I do know that cutting edge spiritual organizations in the west, trying their best to respond to the needs of well off and thoughtful and spiritually alienated folks at home, can sometimes struggle to do much practical good for poor people overseas who sometimes can have a pretty different set of felt needs and priorities.

    I think Jamie’s fund raising question points in that direction. My experience is that the intense emphasis on one on one relationships in Christian fund raising tends to produce ministries where the best fund raisers are rarely the people who do the most practical ministry and good for others. I’ve supervised evangelical Christian workers for a long time and I see little relationship (and I say that very specifically) between the people who raise the most money and those who do the most practical good. When the emphasis is so strongly on the number and quality of your personal relationships with people who can afford to support you, ministry among the poor can suffer.

  9. Anni,

    Thanks for the comment! One of the things we talked about in the workshop was that for donors, their giving is really a part of their discipleship and as those of us who work in fundraising know it is most often so much more than simply writing a check for most people–people have deep love and passion for the causes they support. We were challenged to think about how to help people take steps in their discipleship/maturity; how to invite people to go deeper in their support and involvement. One story Matt told was of a missions organization that realized that every single missionary on the field through their organization had started as a supporter of another missionary, and over the years, through a fairly shared set of experiences, grown to the place of actually being sent out themselves. In discovering what those shared experiences were, that organization has been given great focus for how to view their work in fundraising AND recruiting.

  10. Good questions, Masaki. And Maria, your comment was what I was really getting at–the ways we have systematized stuff to the point of efficiency, perhaps, but at the cost of things becoming impersonal, detached, individualistic, whatever.

  11. Jamie,

    Servant Partners works in much the same way: our missionaries all raise their own support. Where I come in is to look for funding for broader initiatives, field projects around the world, etc. I have found it to be a challenge, actually, to have people consider broader organizational-wide fundraising as everyone has a fairly independent perspective on their donors. So, to answer your question: that’s the stuff I’m trying to figure out too 🙂

  12. Tom,

    I appreciate the insight you bring to discussion like this, and know that it comes from years of experience and relationships around the world.

    Can you point to some different approaches that you have seen or are excited about?

  13. Sure, I think there are some important and effective alternative approaches.

    Seems to me a key question is how to free missionaries among the poor from having to spend inappropriate amounts of time wooing personal support from the relatively well off. And the second question is how to put missionaries among the poor on the field who aren’t from well off families or from resourced church backgrounds, which at this point is mostly a basic requirement for long term mission service. I think we can all agree that some of the best cross cultural missionaries among the poor might be people who grew up poor, if they could get to the field.

    Getting poor folks–whether from the inner city in the US or from poor communities overseas–onto the field to minister among the poor simply doesn’t work when you rely on a ‘close personal relationship’ model of fund raising. Their close personal relationships don’t have the money, in general, to support them.

    I think acknowledging personal notes and sending personal notes to financial supporters of missions is a great idea, of course. And sure, folks that are faithfully writing checks are growing too. Relationships with missionaries and fund raisers can help the check writers get more personally engaged, though I have to say I’ve rarely seen that in my IV or Servant Partners years. If there are ‘urban myths’ among evangelical fund raisers and missionaries, that may be one of them.

    A proven approach that I think helps solve the issues I’m talking about is to involve social entrepreneurs as ‘mission team members’ These are folks that create socially useful approaches that sustain themselves and partner ministries because they meet a market need while helping solve a social challenge. This is a hybrid approach that combines some of the best of the non-profit and for profit world.

    Many, many examples of that right now around the world. Jean Luc Krieg, one of the team leaders of a ministry we both know, is trying to create that kind of support base for his ministry, but he’s struggling against older ways of thinking about creating support for ministry.

    Ironically, this new approach is actually a pretty old approach. Catholic monastic groups have been doing variations on this one for a thousand years, though the new twist is to make sure the ‘for profit’ aspect actually contributes to something socially useful. Think ‘green’ profit making initiatives instead of Christian Brothers wine supporting the missos :^). Basically, the idea is to directly involve folks with skills to generate funds in the mission as fellow team members. A few successful approaches of that kind can support thousands of missionaries and allow poor folks to become missionaries too.

    A second approach that works is the old timey ‘tent making approach.’ When the missionary can support themselves there is no need to spend a ton of time soliciting funds. I think Paul took that approach not only to avoid ‘burdening’ others but also to gain freedom to act more authentically.

    I think missions among the poor would do well to add a lot of both of those approaches to the mix.

    I’m very excited about what God’s doing around the world. I just think it’s key, especially for people who are interested in investing themselves in ministry among the poor or in alleviating poverty –like many of the folks reading the blog–to get as good a fix as we can on the the real obstacles to advancing those causes. I agree a lack of authentic relationships is a big issue for American evangelicalism in general, but I’m not sure how central that issue is right now in advancing work among the poor. I know of very few poor people overseas who would identify that as a prophetic priority. I think there are some other–and possibly bigger–fish to fry.

    I felt comfortable getting into all this because your original comments came in the context of getting fund raising training as a development director for an international urban poor mission. I realize you were making a more general point, but I thought this was a relevant ‘hijacking’ :^)

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