Reflections

A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

From Dread to Generosity

Author: 
Kerry Alys Robinson ’94 M.A.R.

I detect it among religious leaders whenever I speak to them about fundraising – theological ambivalence about money. Is wealth holy or is it sinful? If it is holy, is it so only under prescribed circumstances? Or is money neutral, and what is sinful or holy is the degree to which we are attached to it and how we use it?

Like the famous deadly sins, there are seven primary obstacles to successful faith-based fundraising. Theological ambivalence about wealth is one of them.

Gifted but Guarded

At Leadership Roundtable, we speak to faith groups about financial best practices, including raising money for their parishes or other ministries. The audiences are usually faith leaders – very accomplished people, gifted practitioners, thinkers, pastoral healers. Yet on matters of money, they bring fear, ambivalence, cognitive dissonance, resistance – in short, obstacles that stand in the way.

At fundraising workshops we often begin by posing a single question. We ask them what thought or feeling stirs when they are told, “As ministers, priests, religious, and lay leaders of faith-based nonprofits you are responsible for the financial health of your parish, ministry, hospital, school, or nonprofit organization. Even if you have the luxury of a professional director of development, you are responsible for raising money to advance the mission of your organization.”

The answers they give are overwhelmingly fraught with anxiety and dread. “I know I have to do it, but I regard it as a necessary evil.” “I am more of a people person, so I really don’t enjoy raising money or even discussing it.” “I feel panic, a sense of futility.” “I worry that I will never be able to raise enough money, fast enough, and people will be disappointed.” “It makes me feel like I am using people, people I respect and would prefer to have as friends, not donors.” “Terrified!”

If the first obstacle is theological ambivalence toward money, the second is the false belief that fundraising is not real ministry. I’ve heard many men and women confide that they did not discern a religious vocation in order to make people uncomfortable by bringing up the unpleasant subject of money. They discerned their vocation to bring solace to others, bring the good news to others, bring Christ to others. Intellectually they know they need to succeed at fundraising if their ministries are to thrive, but it feels like a contradiction to their real ministry.

The third obstacle is related: inadequate preparation around finance. Many otherwise skilled and influential faith leaders have received very little training in management and human resources – even less in fundraising, financial accountability, and planning. It’s hard to embrace responsibilities for which we have not been trained.

Language Barrier

A fourth obstacle is language. Consider these familiar phrases: “Hit him up for money.” “Put the squeeze on her.” “Strong-arm him.” “Target them.” This is the language of violence and violation, not ministry and service. Some people cavalierly equate fundraising with begging – the language of scarcity. This places the fund seeker in a position of seeking alms.

If, on the other hand, the fund seeker believes in the potential of a financial gift – how much an investment would matter to the beneficiary and the benefactor – then the request for financial support is no longer begging or violation but a form of invitation, the invitation to be generous. Eliciting generosity and responding generously deserve reverence, not disparagement.

A fifth obstacle regards fundraising as asking for a personal favor. Even though the financial donation is used to support a ministry that touches hundreds or thousands of people, the assumption lingers that one is asking for a personal favor of the donor. It can be tremendously unsettling and uncomfortable to think you now owe the donor. Attempting to avoid this, the unfortunate temptation is to frame the donation as an obligation, pushing the donor to give out of guilt, rather than regard it as an invitation to be generous.

A sixth obstacle reinforces the suspicion many people have that fundraising is slightly manipulative work, not fully transparent, somewhat deceiving or sycophantic. Treating affluent and powerful people with greater respect and dignity than those you calculate can do nothing for you is not only poor development practice, it is unfaithful and boorish. Integrity can never be sacrificed for development efficiency.

The seventh obstacle is perhaps the most pervasive and insidious: fear, a gripping fear of rejection and failure. What if the donor says no? Is that a rejection of my ministry, my priesthood, and my leadership? Is that a rejection of me?

Fear Not, Says Scripture

Fear is the antithesis of faith. “Fear not” is a core scriptural tenant. The task of raising money – any amount of money – can seem so arduous, so impossible, that it’s rare to find a leader or development officer who is unafraid. Reflect on the nature of the fear. What specifically is feeding the anxiety? I’ve heard many answers: “I am afraid I will offend someone by asking for too much, or not enough.” “I am afraid of the magnitude of responsibility.” “I am afraid that I will have only one chance to make the ask and if I screw it up, I will have ruined the opportunity forever.”

A crucial characteristic of a leader or development director is a palpable confidence, an unshakeable faith that the potential can be brought to fruition. This joyful expectation will be tested at every turn, definitely at the beginning, most certainly when the campaign in fact begins to succeed, and especially when the stakes get higher after so much time and effort have been invested in the campaign.

Nobility of Purpose

To people of faith who are responsible for raising money: It will be paramount that you attend daily to prayer and reflection, examining anew the soundness of your intentions, your motivations for working so hard toward the goal and vision of the future. Stay focused on mission. Hold the future beneficiaries – people you may never meet – in your mind’s eye. Be as other-centered and noble of purpose as possible. Pray, surrender, and ask for the grace to remain faithful to the task. Hold the end – where the whole effort is heading – in mind. Think big.

And please know this: What you already possess – your particular religious formation, the spiritual disciplines you practice, the desire for meaning and aspiration to be a blessing in the world – these are the very fundamentals of success in financial development. Spiritual maturity, mercy, a commitment to the dignity of the human person, a zest for life and all that life has to offer, a belief in transcendence, access to hope, tenacity, humility, awe, generosity of spirit, the divine ability to imagine abundance – these are all hallmarks of success in fundraising.

Keep an eye on your biases about money. See donors as subjects, not objects. Understand development as a ministry to donors. Believe that generosity is humankind’s birthright. Bring your faith to bear. Be joyful. Be confident in the future. Invite everyone to be part of a life-giving, other-centered, faith-filled vision of all that God intends.


Kerry Alys Robinson ’94 M.A.R. is the founding executive director and global ambassador of Leadership Roundtable and author of Imagining Abundance: Fundraising, Philanthropy, and a Spiritual Call to Service (Liturgical Press, 2014).

Issue Title: 
God and Money: Turning the Tables
Issue Year: 
2017