Fundraising for Faith-Based Organizations in a Secular World

I must admit to being startled last December as I was scanning Ralph Nader's list of his 11 "favorite, frugal, effective" charities in the Huffington Post. Nader is, of course, the famous crusading consumer rights advocate whom many consider ultra-liberal, not to mention secular. Nader identified a number of no doubt worthwhile but nonetheless obscure nonprofits, such as the Organization for Competitive Markets, The Center for Auto Safety and The Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance. When I reached No. 11 on the list, my heart skipped a beat.

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"The old reliable Salvation Army," Nader wrote is "quick to the scene of natural disaster anywhere in the world with hands-on assistance, unbureaucratic and frugal. On a daily basis, it helps the poor, the destitute and the hungry." He  continued: "The Salvation Army is consistently rated near the top of the most popular charities/non-profits in America. As incorruptible as humans can possibly be.”

Wow! Thank you, Ralph Nader.

Religious inclinations notwithstanding, Nader singled out The Army for its dedicated service, organizational frugality, and clean record. Numerous faith-based nonprofits are concerned about how they will be viewed and supported in our increasingly secular society as more and more people align with “none of the above” when it comes to religion.

But in my 40 years of service to The Salvation Army (the last five as spokesperson and head of Community Relations and Development), I've learned lessons about how to raise money in this climate that I'd like to share.

The good news is that the growing trend toward a more secular society has not produced a significant decline in financial support of the Army, and there's no reason it should stymie your efforts either.

Following are important lessons for faith-based organizations to keep in mind while seeking support:

1. Stay focused on mission.

All groups have a mission, and it is imperative everyone in the organization knows the mission and stays focused on how his or her role fulfills that mission.

The Salvation Army's mission is "to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human need in His name without discrimination." The Salvation Army is not only a large not-for-profit human service organization, it is a church. One of my main duties over the past five years was to respond to critics who automatically branded faith-based organizations such as ours as "discriminatory." I would respond by saying that no one is turned away from service because of color of skin, place of birth, or sexual orientation as that would be inconsistent with our mission.

Some years ago Ken Blanchard spoke at the Christian Leadership Alliance Conference in Dallas.  He told a story about visiting an organization that provided special services to the families of terminally ill children.  Their mission was "to provide quality care to those who came through their doors."

On the way to the parking lot Mr. Blanchard spotted a member of the ground crew mowing the grass.  He stopped him to ask about mission. The man recited it verbatim.

"And how do you fulfill that mission?," Mr. Blanchard continued.

"Whenever I see a family coming up the sidewalk," the yard man answered, "and I’m mowing, I turn the mower off so they won’t be annoyed or frightened by the noise." Mr. Blanchard cited this example of how a well articulated mission flows top to bottom throughout an entire organization.

2. Stay focused on excellence

Faith-based organization should be committed to knowing and fulfilling our missions…with excellence.

One of the main services offered by The Salvation Army in Haiti is a rural hospital on the southern peninsula. The staff includes five Haitian doctors as well as nurses, lab technicians, a pharmacist and support staff. The hospital is financially self-supporting through patient fees.

Just a few miles away, a government hospital offers free service to all who come. But people travel past that hospital to The Army hospital. Why? Because of quality of service.

Whether we operate hospitals, schools, colleges or social service programs –faith-based organizations must be committed to excellence. Doing the best that can be done will always win over donors.

3. Stayed focused on integrity

To faith-based organizations, this may seem obvious, but we are all painfully aware of organizations that compromise in this area.

We must stay focused on integrity in how we spend money. No one is in this business to get rich, and a workman is worthy of his hire as the Bible teaches. However, when more money is spent on overhead than mission, we open ourselves to valid criticism.

We must stay focused on integrity in how we report. If you tell the truth, then you never need to remember what you said. Whether it is feeding the homeless, serving veterans or caring for the elderly, report only what you do. Remember, it is always helpful to show the impact of services on your clients.  In today’s competitive not-for-profit arena more donors are asking for specific and measurable feedback: "How are your outputs creating positive outcomes in the lives of those you serve?"

4. Lastly, we must stay focused on integrity in how we respond to criticism.  Some do not like faith-based organizations, and they post negative comments on our social media accounts and repeat unfounded rumors. That is the world in which we live.

For the past five years, I have focused on responding to negative posts and publicity without resorting to the name calling that permeates our world today. As people of faith, we must always be aware of our tone.

In the 1960s, we sang a chorus, "And they will know we are Christian by our love." In John 13:35, Jesus said: "By this, everyone will know you are my disciples if you love one another." Calm integrity in the face of criticism will win more people over than trying to win an argument on social media.

It is not a struggle of faith-based versus secular.  It is an internal struggle to stay focused on our mission and doing that mission with excellence and integrity. When you continue to do the good work, support will follow.

Bio note: Lt. Col. Ron Busroe, who recently retired from The Salvation Army at the end of 2017, was raised in Louisville, Ky. He has a bachelor's degree in history from Asbury College. He was commissioned as an officer of The Salvation Army, along with his wife, Lt. Col. Carol Busroe, in 1978.