Religious Institutions Try Innovative Fund-Raisers

BY: ALLAN RICHTER

Feb 13, NEW YORK (NY TIMES) — For years, St. Peter of Alcantara Roman Catholic Church in Port Washington has held annual dinner dances and golf outings that yielded lucrative fund-raising dividends for the church and five-digit prize money for lucky parishioners.

Last fall, the church adopted a third approach. It offered members the option of deducting donations automatically from their bank accounts, just as health club fees or utility bills can be deducted. "It's keeping up with the times," said the Rev. Robert Romeo of St. Peter of Alcantara, who likened the church's strategy to McDonald's recent move to accept credit and debit cards.

Skyrocketing energy costs, fewer members to pay for them and competition from charities are forcing Long Island's religious institutions to wrestle anew with fund-raising. And they are adopting their strategies from the business world. Rather than relying on manna from heaven, churches and synagogues are hiring professional fund-raisers to lobby for bequests or gifts of $10,000 or more. More sophisticated fund-raising approaches are supplanting less lucrative staples like bingo games.

As two-income families fight to meet the rising cost of living on the Island and the increasing demands on time, more houses of worship are calling into question the return on investment from time-consuming and volunteer-heavy bake sales and bingo games, clergy members and stewardship experts said.

"There's a debate among fund-raising experts as to where energy would be better directed," said Rabbi Moses A. Birnbaum, the president of the Long Island Board of Rabbis. "Are we dealing with a lot of claims on people's time? Is it worthwhile to spend a lot of time and energy on bake sales and bazaars and these little things, or do you just concentrate on major events like dinners? Even with dinners, which traditionally were a big fund-raiser, it gets more and more difficult to get people who want to be honorees."

Steven Levy, the president of the Levy Philanthropic Counsel, a Huntington consulting firm, agreed. "One major gift is a lot of bingo games, a lot of car washes," he said. "Churches and synagogues are targeting and being smarter" about fund-raising.

Few Long Island churches that have adopted automatic deductions have seen parishioners embrace the idea in a big way. The program's biggest hurdle: Older members are uncomfortable with the idea that anyone else can dip into their bank accounts, whether for donations or for paying bills.

"It's definitely an age thing," said the Rev. Laurie Cline, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Bellmore, whose parishioners have greeted a two-year-old automatic-donations program with a lukewarm response.

The congregation, which has about 150 families, started with two families in the program, Pastor Cline said: "We've been getting more people, but it's been slow. A lot of the older folks like to put their money in their envelope."

Although disciplined giving, as the automatic deductions are known, is the holy grail of fund-raising for its regularity, some experts say they believe worshipers are reluctant to increase their giving once they sign up for automatic deductions.

"It's hard to get people to call their bank and up that to a larger amount," said Michael Durall, the author of "Creating Congregations of Generous People" (Alban Institute, 1999) and "Beyond the Collection Plate" (Abingdon Press, 2003).

Further, the Rev. James Watrud, pastor of Christ Lutheran Church, a 950-member congregation in East Northport, acknowledged that because automatic deductions, instituted five years ago, do not require worshipers' presence, they can undermine a key goal - attracting more people to services. But he said, the automatic deductions program, which the church calls Simply Giving, has brought in a steady stream of income during the slow summer vacation season.

The church used to receive $7,000 in monthly donations in the summer, not nearly enough to cover its $12,000 expenses. During such lean times, the church paid only urgent bills, Pastor Watrud said. Now, he said, the church gets about $6,700 in monthly donations in the summer, on top of the $7,000 it receives in the collection plate.

The results of Christ Lutheran's program, religious philanthropy experts say, mirror the larger national trend: more dollars from a smaller number of donors. Of the 175 member families that donate to the church, about 45 give by automatic deduction and account for 40 percent of the church's annual income, roughly $200,000, Pastor Watrud said.

The Simply Giving program is also known as First Fruit because checking account deductions are made at the beginning of the month.

"I like the idea of First Fruit giving," said Barbara Hansen, a tutor in accounting and a volunteer at Christ Lutheran. "I think it's very biblical. If you do it first, you're not giving God your leftovers. I like the idea that when I pay my bills, the first entry I have each month is the Simply Giving automatic withdrawal."

Mrs. Hansen and her husband, Bill, a computer consultant, stepped up their Simply Giving donation to $300 a month this year from $275 last year. The Hansens also have three monthly payments for vacation time-share maintenance deducted from their checking account, she said.

About a third of the 44 Lutheran churches in Suffolk County have adopted automatic deductions, said Pastor Watrud, the Suffolk director of Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, the Wisconsin nonprofit group that administers Simply Giving. Christ Lutheran's success with the program is an anomaly, he said, and he attributes it to the influx of many younger families in East Northport that are more comfortable with automatic deductions.

Even so, he said, the Simply Giving program had a bumpy start. The first members who signed up felt uncomfortable when other worshipers saw that they did not put anything in the collection plate. "We had buttons made up that read 'I'm a Simply Giver,' " he said. "For the first month, people flashed their buttons at the usher."

One size doesn't fit all when it comes to religious fund-raising. Just as stores sell, say, a variety of sweaters at different prices, Christ Lutheran has different expectations from worshipers at its three Sunday services.

The 8:15 a.m. service attracts the oldest parishioners, who tend to give the most, Pastor Watrud said. The 9:15 service coincides with Sunday school classes, so the church tugs on families' purse strings. "They're seeing the benefits of having kids in Sunday school and contributing to the ministry," Pastor Watrud said.

In recent years, the church has added an 11 a.m. contemporary service with a band to attract new worshipers who might have been turned off by more traditional services elsewhere. The liturgy is in a PowerPoint presentation projected on a screen. Similarly, Pastor Watrud modernizes his sermon by preaching on, say, "The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss."

Little if any pressure is put on these worshipers for donations, he said - it's the service with the soft sell.

"The more people you get into church, the more people are willing to give," he said. "There's less asking people to give more. People respond by being there and by the impact the ministry has on them, rather than sending letters and saying, 'You're not here.' "

A detailed understanding of a congregation's demographic makeup is becoming just as important for synagogues, said Shea Lerner, the vice president of the Plainview Jewish Center who oversees the Conservative synagogue's fund-raising.

"Going back to our parents' generation, Jews were excluded from a lot of areas of philanthropy," said Mr. Lerner, 37. "You never saw them sitting on the board of the Met, so the synagogue was the primary focus. Now our money is welcomed everywhere."

With rising utility costs, he added, "there is greater demand for fund-raising, but there is a much tougher audience to get it from."

In the last several years, Mr. Lerner said, the Plainview Jewish Center has spelled out what all dues and donations are earmarked for. That has made fund-raising more transparent, he said, and has helped the synagogue remain competitive with the more liberal Reform synagogues.

"It not only gives more accountability, it helps us define ourselves and tells members we're not going to forgo on our principles," he said.

Jewish law prohibits worshipers from handling money on the Sabbath and High Holy Days, when attendance is highest, so synagogues supplement their fund-raising with annual membership dues. On the Island, they are usually $1,500 to $2,000, said Rabbi Birnbaum of the Board of Rabbis.

Many Island synagogues endure a "revolving door" effect: members join just in time to put their children through the religious classes needed to prepare for bar or bat mitzvahs, only to sever ties once that rite of passage is completed. The Reform movement has been trying "to move beyond that focus for joining, to bring members in at all phases of their life and help them see the value of their membership beyond just educating their children," said Diane Wiener, an administrator at Temple Beth David in Commack.

So Temple Beth David started a Lifelong Learning adult and intergenerational education program and hired a director to run it. "It has worked," Ms. Wiener said. "More members are staying past the bar and bat mitzvah."

Still, in each of the last two years, the synagogue has attracted about 70 new members and has seen roughly the same number leave, Ms. Wiener said. Before that, new members outpaced those who left by up to 30, and in the early 1990's, the figures were even higher, she said. Annual dues, now at $1,800, usually go up $100 each year, and that may be affecting membership, she said.

At the Commack Jewish Center, membership has fallen from more than 300 three years ago to about 280 today. So when the synagogue was faced with a steep increase in heating bills this winter, it decided to pass along a $75 energy surcharge to members rather than raise the dues. The synagogue last passed along a surcharge after 9/11, when it needed to raise $17,000 for security upgrades.

Dues went up last year, from $1,350 to $1,500. "It's getting to the point where we're starting to reach limits where people won't be willing to pay," said Sol Loeser, the congregation's president.

The synagogue is now struggling to find other sources of financing. After dropping a bingo game that did not attract enough players to support the $1,500 prize, it is weighing an offer from a cellular service company, which it would not name, that wants to build a cell tower on synagogue property in exchange for $15,000 in annual rent.

"Everyone is looking for an outside source of income," he said. "The real problem that most synagogues and churches have is that they try to raise funds from the same people."



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