Transformational Generosity

My evolving beliefs about transformational generosity

When I first met Scott Rodin last January, the room was tense. I heard that he had a very negative impression of our direct-marketing program for Prison Fellowship Ministries. Jim Liske, CEO of PFM, was mediating a “discussion” to discern the best way forward. Scott and I started far apart. In a half day, we were almost together.

That day of conversation led to two more meetings, and many phone calls and emails with Scott.

This has been an amazing journey. We have discussed many details of the science of direct marketing. And we have soared to the heights of the theology of stewardship. We are now embarking on something together that I believe is a calling from God.

Direct marketing, and especially direct mail, have been under assault throughout my career. Almost nobody likes them, but they’re the backbone of almost every organization’s fundraising program. Those of us responsible for raising money are often seen as a necessary evil. We get tired of that.

A better way to fundraise
Having defended the way we do direct mail for 30 years, I now believe there is a better way. Through dialogue with Scott, Wes Willmer and others, I’ve come to some conclusions:

1. We sometimes give the donor too much credit.

      We say, “You can roll the stone away from a prisoner’s heart this Easter.” No. Only God can do that.

2. We often don’t emphasize God’s role enough.

      Only God can save lives, call people to himself, turn America back to morality. Donors can’t do that, and organizations can’t do that. Their role is to join God in what He is doing.

3. We don’t treat the donors as true partners.

      We make too much of our organization and diminish the donor to a transaction. “Your part is to give. We will do the work.”

4. We are more focused on getting the next gift than on helping a donor grow

    in their relationship with Christ, as they discover the joy of being good stewards of the resources God has entrusted to them.

We’re not bad people. We have good motives. We’ve wrestled our whole careers with trying to use direct-mail methods that honor God. We try not to manipulate. We try to be honest. But I believe I have seen a better way.

This new way is more about God. It’s more about the donor’s journey toward Christ. This way of thinking has been sweeping the major-donor world, thanks to Scott and others like him, and thanks to godly leaders in Christian organizations who truly care about the donors they have the privilege to know personally. (Unfortunately, that is almost exclusively the large-dollar donors.)

I now believe this philosophy can be applied even in direct mail. How? I’m not sure yet. I think there are risks. We may turn off donors, who might feel we sound like the televangelists who promise hundredfold returns. That’s why we’re embarking on tests with several clients. We have to learn how to do this right and avoid the downside risks.

Just because we think we see a more biblical way to convey our clients’ programs in direct mail doesn’t mean we’ll get it right the first time. We will be measuring donor attitudes and results. We expect to learn a lot this year.

Will we see the lives of most of the direct-mail donors transformed? I doubt it. But maybe we will see a few. If we can find out how to do this without offending donors, and I’m sure we will, I believe we’ll honor God and income will increase. We’ll keep you posted.

Next: Steve Woodworth and Scott Rodin discuss the future of Transformational Generosity