Transformational Generosity Q&A

Our president, Steve Woodworth, and Dr. Scott Rodin have been thinking a lot about how transformational generosity applies to direct mail over the last year. This last month, they each wrote about their journey (read Scott’s post or Steve’s post). I had the chance to conduct a short interview with them this last week to continue the conversation. I hope you enjoy.

Josh Dougherty: Steve, how do you think testing the concepts of transformational generosity builds upon our experience as direct marketers?

Steve Woodworth: As Christians involved in using direct marketing for Kingdom purposes, I think we have always tried to do the right thing. We motivate people to care about Christian ministry and to support it. There is a whole science developed over many decades which shows that there are many techniques which simply work. They get people’s attention, they move people, they generate gifts. I think almost all these techniques are morally neutral. Things like using response devices, being clear about what your gift will accomplish and matching grants generate more response. There is nothing wrong with them. I don’t think very many of us succumb to temptation to manipulate or stretch the truth.

However, what I have seen in this last year is that we sometimes forget to put God front and center. He is the One who saves. He is the One who feeds the poor. Our ministries are just His hands and feet. The donor has a chance to cooperate in God’s purposes, but sometimes we make it sound like the donor or the ministry is the one doing everything.

I think we have the chance to put more of God into our communications. I believe that will honor Him, and for many of our donors, they will get a more clear picture of their role in God’s work. All of this still builds on the solid foundation of everything we’ve learned in direct marketing.

JD: Scott, you have years of experience helping ministries integrate transformational generosity into their major donor program. Which principles would you say best apply to direct marketing?

Scott Rodin: There are three principles I would lift up. First, God is the only fundraiser. That is, we rely on the movement of the Holy Spirit in the lives of God’s people to move them to obedient and joyful generosity. We must guard against taking that role on ourselves believing that we are the ones who motivate giving by our words, pictures, response devices, matching gifts, etc. There is nothing wrong with using these as long as we consistently send people to God in prayer to make their giving decisions.

Second, we must treat people as stewards and not owners. We must check our language and make sure we are inviting stewards to be faithful with God’s resources, and not trying to convince owners to part with their money to help our cause. The difference is less subtle than we might think, and in many direct mail campaigns it will take a reconstruction of the messaging and retraining of giving partners to make this important transition.

Third, development work, including direct mail, is ministry. It must be used to help God’s people become more faithful stewards and know the joy of generosity. We must change all attitudes that see direct mail as a means of funding ministry, and instead see it as a direct ministry to our giving partners. This changes out attitudes, which, in turn, will impact our copy, design, invitation and gift acknowledgments.

JD: Steve, many direct marketers are unsure about transformational generosity’s applicability to their work. What would you say to them?

SW: Let’s look long and hard at a series of their communications. Do they imply that the donor will save a life or lead a person to Christ? Do they imply that the ministry is doing all the work and the donor just needs to provide the funds? Is God portrayed as the One at work, with everyone else joining Him in His purposes?

We’ve had several clients who said they already use the kind of language we are talking about. But when we take a hard look at their copy, there hasn’t been an appeal or newsletter yet where we haven’t found things we think should be changed when we apply a transformational generosity (God-centered) mind-set.

Give us three of your appeals, and we’ll tell you if we think you are hitting everything just right.

JD: You’ve both said that this journey has been one of personal challenge and reflection. What would you say has been the biggest shift in your thinking during this process?

SW: Since I’ve defended myself for 30 years against people who say that direct marketing is not biblical, I started from a defensive posture. I’ve been told by some that we should not ask at all. (I point them to II Corinthians 8 and 9.) Others have said that it’s ok to ask, but don’t use any persuasion. (I point them to the same passage!)

Once I began to listen to the guys who have written the books on stewardship, I realized they all come from a perspective based on personal contact fundraising. So I went from defensive to dismissive. “This doesn’t apply in mass communications, because you can’t have a dialogue.” But then I began to take a hard look at what we are communicating, and I came to believe that we can do it better. Fundamentally, my shift has been “There is too much about the ministry and the donor and not enough about God.”

SR: This is going to be hard and take a high level of commitment. Direct mail is driven by metrics that demand an ROI, and ministries rely heavily on good returns. If all we consider are these metrics, I fear many will see this as a “risk” they cannot take. Yet if this is truly a more faithful way to raise Kingdom resources, then it is a path we cannot afford not to take. It is a matter of obedience that requires giving up control in a highly controlled field. I am learning just how hard that may be for many ministries, yet I am confident that those who take this step of faith will be blessed, and will be a blessing to their giving partners as a result.

JD: Given that we expect to achieve both qualitative and quantitative outcomes from a transformational fundraising approach, do you believe such measurements are possible, and why?

SW: I believe that if we change the way even a minority of donors think, we will see increased giving. But we also intend to do research to measure attitudes.

SR: This will require new metrics to be developed, but they are out there. Some of this work is already being done. If we work together with others and use best practices, we can build a new set of measurements of success that can help us test the most faithful and effective ways to develop a transformational approach as the foundation of a robust direct mail program.

JD: What are you most excited about as we move in this new direction of helping ministries take a transformational approach to their direct mail fundraising?

SW: The scandal of the evangelical church is that we give only 4% of our income. That includes giving to churches and all causes. It’s inconceivable to me that Christians don’t at least give 10%. It’s been my dream that we would see that needle move in my lifetime. Maybe, by God’s grace, this could be a small part of that.

SR: We have the opportunity to be used by God to help ministries bear a consistent witness to their belief that God is the provider of all they need. When we let God be the fundraiser, focus on the ministry of development as our guiding methodology and help our giving partners experience the joy of the faithful steward, we will see God work in mighty ways, honor Him in all we do and ensure that He gets the glory.

JD: How do you see helping a ministry measure the effectiveness of this new approach, and what new metrics might we need to develop?

SW: We expect to measure the impact on income and on attitudes. I don’t think it will be that difficult. We’ve had conversations about whether we even need to measure. But I believe we do, for two reasons. First, we need to find out if we are communicating effectively. I am concerned that we could fall into sounding like the old-time preachers who promised a hundredfold return if you gave to them. We could use Scripture in such a way that some people take as being manipulative. Second, I want us to be able to build a body of case studies that we can use to influence others when we know that it’s working and we’ve proven we know how to do it right.

SR: For one, we will need to focus on longer-term metrics that reflect a greater retention rate and a higher level of increased giving among current supporters. I believe one of the great benefits of this approach is that a ministry will build a more loyal, committed and generous core of supporters, and that will show itself over time. The danger is looking at short-term results, which may not show the strength of a transformational giving approach. I believe a key metric will be this “core supporter” base that resonates with the stewardship message and grows in generosity as a result of our direct mail messaging. If we can adequately measure this core and their impact over time, I think we will see clearly the benefits of this approach both financially and missionally.

JD: What’s the best way for people to continue this conversation with you?

SW: Call Scott. Just kidding. We’re happy to communicate by this blog or by email.

SR: Call Steve – not kidding. Masterworks stands ready to take the next steps with you in how this approach can serve your ministry and bless your supporters. I am proud to be associated with them in this important work.