Note: This post originally appeared on Voices of Stewardship, a newly sponsored initiative by Vanco Payments. I've written a lot about church stewardship and giving over the last decade. Review a diverse sampling of that work here.

Vision-driven capital campaigns are all the rage, just like annual pledge drives and “Prove the Tithe” events were a generation ago. But my problem with hanging the success of your next financial campaign on vision alone is that it’s a big gamble. I’m not willing to take it—and neither should you.

I think I understand why the vision conversation feels so comfortable to religious professionals. You spent approximately 90 hours of classroom time earning your Master of Divinity degree, the standard degree for local ministry preparation. (To put that in context, that’s equivalent in length to a law degree.) Unfortunately, it’s unlikely you ever took a class on operational budgets, volunteer development, staff recruiting and management, and, especially, fundraising.

This gap in training became stunningly clear within the first 90 days of arriving at your first church. You had to adapt quickly, but you were at a clear disadvantage.

I believe this gap has left the door wide open for incomplete thinking to find its way to you. Almost every ministry leader I know would rather talk about vision than financial projections, donor prioritization, and lifecycle management. I would expect that. But given the mounting challenges you face in building the Kingdom and funding ministry, I believe you deserve to know what’s necessary to deliver on the vision you see so clearly today.

An incomplete approach is just that – incomplete.

Every dollar a church has is freely given from its members and supporters. The level of trust wrapped inside that transaction—from the smallest to the largest donation—warrants the need to move beyond the comfortable conversation of vision and into the sometimes uncomfortable dimensions of financial planning and comprehensive strategy that will ensure your vision becomes a reality. Otherwise, you are invoking Bon Jovi’s church management theory—“Livin’ on a Prayer.” And there’s just too much at stake to leave funding ministry at the feet of chance.

Here’s why a vision-driven campaign falls short:

  • You can’t feel your way through a strategic initiative. A financial initiative requires a structured and measurable approach. Intuition must be matched with data and facts. Otherwise, you risk making strategic decisions without all the right information. Don’t simply trust your perception.

  • The people in your pew have heard a “new” vision from God every time a new pastor comes in. It’s easy to look from the platform to the pew. But what about the view from the pew to the platform? You aren’t the first person to hear a “vision” from God about what “they” are supposed to do. A plan—not a position—will overcome the natural skepticism shared by many in your congregation.

  • Hiding behind the “God told me” card is a cop-out. This is not something that inspires trust. Do your homework and build a plan. You’re going to need to do this to secure your largest gifts from your financial leaders.

  • You can’t validate any vision without quantitative analysis. You must measure lifecycle engagement within your church to give context to historical activity and forecasted activity. You also need to measure affinity, capacity, and interest to appropriately assign an affinity score and arrive at a quantitative assessment of your base of support.

  • The people in the pew are smart enough to recognize lipstick on a pig. The reason people are giving greater and greater sums outside church and maintaining or decreasing their levels of support to church is that faith-based organization, ministries, and general nonprofits are doing a better job at planning, validating and communicating their financial initiatives.

A successful campaign is grounded in:

  • Strategic objectives. These should be research-based as well as measurable and actionable. They should also be clearly articulated across the organization.

  • Informed demographic and community analysis. You need to know what you know (your church database and interactions) and what you don’t know (demographics, wealth screening, etc.).

  • Predictive modeling and trend analysis. If you don’t understand the movement of your donor base beneath the surface, a significant financial campaign could be a devastating blow to your church.

  • Measurable Key Progress Indicators (or KPIs). You need to measure every aspect of your campaign. Vision is hard to measure, but acquisition, digital communications, pledges, giving frequency, average gift, etc., are not. What happens on the platform at the beginning of the campaign planning stage will soon be forgotten the Sunday after commitment Sunday. You must maintain momentum by demonstrating your ability to meet and exceed expectations along the way.

  • Clear lines of accountability. Who is going to do what, by when, and what is the anticipated outcome? There are a lot of moving pieces to any financial initiative. If all of it rests on the eloquence of the senior leader, you’re dead in the water on Day One.

  • Key risk assessment. Any strategic initiative comes with risk. You need to account for those and define a mitigation plan before anything goes public.

  • A comprehensive and multi-channel engagement strategy throughout the fulfillment period. Vision—no matter how compelling—will be ignored if it isn’t contextualized, relevant and timely. It must also be delivered across a channel by which I am already engaged. Just saying it from the platform isn’t enough.

A capital campaign is one vehicle to resolve financial needs for ministry; it’s not a cure-all to the real challenges lurking in the details of your donor file.

Any formal approach to fundraising in church is still in its infancy compared to other sectors such as education, hospitals, general nonprofits, athletics and even faith-based ministries and para-church organizations. While these organizations know that vision is important, they also know it’s not enough to get you across the finish line.

To create a sustainable ministry, you must also build a plan to address things like:

  • New donor acquisition. How many new names are you adding to your file? And what is your plan to grow their engagement over time?

  • Lost revenue. Do you understand the impact of the dollars received in the previous 12 months that are missing in the current 12-month giving period? What action are you taking on this information?

  • The cost to replace one multi-year donor. (Hint: This isn’t a one-for-one relationship.) My research suggests that it takes 8-12 new donors to replace one donor who has given for a minimum of three years. Do you know the rate of attrition for this segment? How are you incorporating this factor into your growth plans?

  • Multi-generational engagement and giving. Not everyone in your congregation values the same things or can give in the same way. How does this drive your communications plan? How are you accounting for this in your campaign planning?

  • Technology and giving. We shouldn’t choose how people give to us. Instead, we should make every option available to our membership to ensure that those who wish to show their support can do so in ways that are familiar and comfortable. How are you evaluating your options? What’s your plan to diversify your giving channels?

Vision is an important prompt for a financial initiative, but it can’t be the substance that fuels your effort.

Church-wide trends demonstrate there is an exploding bottom, a shrinking, silent middle, and a smaller group giving significantly more and more at the top. This trend will implode on you unless you step outside your comfort zone and into less familiar territory. Doing so doesn’t invalidate vision in leadership; rather, it’s the only hope you have to ensure that your efforts result in the activation and actualization of the vision God has placed on your heart.

Don’t avoid the hard conversations because vision-driven campaigns are in vogue. Vision will change over time; the local church needs sound, proven financial ministry strategy to thrive and to make a long-term, meaningful impact. It’s the only clear path to developing a sustainable approach to ministry.

REFLECT: Have you prematurely ended your campaign planning process with vision and how to communicate it? Is your campaign strategy incomplete? What tools, models, and projections are you using to validate your assumptions? Is everything in place that you need to successfully cross the finish line and achieve a fully funded ministry initiative?

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