How to Raise Money from the Religious Community

By Richard I. Male and Terry McCoy


Of all sources of funding for nonprofits, the religious community can be both the easiest and the most difficult to access. The difficulty stems from its decentralized nature and the need to understand the relationship between the different levels of the religious structure. There are any number of religious entities and many of them have local, subregional, regional and national levels-presenting a bewildering number of entry points for the grantseeker. However, if you take the time to understand the process and work with the religious community, you will generally find a more stable and flexible source of funding than is available from foundations and corporations. In addition, your organization will have access to a group of caring and committed volunteers.

Religious communities support nonprofit organizations as a way of living out their "faith in action." They see nonprofits as partners in meeting their outreach or mission goals. Your success in raising funds from them depends on how well your issues match their mission, and whether you can establish a solid relationship of trust with the congregation.

More than 45 percent of all charitable contributions made in America go to support organized religion. That amounts to about $75 billion in giving to religious and faith-based organizations, with millions of those dollars going back into the community in the form of grants and loans to nonprofit organizations. Individuals account for almost 90 percent of all charitable giving and religious individuals are the most charitable of all with over 60 percent of individual giving going to religious institutions. Studies have shown that self-identified religious individual donors will give six times the amount of money to non-religious organizations than an individual without a religious orientation.

Religious Structures

Since the mid-1960s, the religious community has been an important and strategic source of funding for a wide variety of issues, including social justice, empowerment, the environment, housing, and serving the needs of the poor and hungry.

Even though each denomination is slightly different in its structure and bureaucracy, there are enough similarities to make some generalized statements. Some denominations, such as the Episcopal, Roman Catholics and United Methodists are highly structured and operate from a central spiritual figure such as a bishop. Others, such as the Jewish, United Church of Christ and Unitarian faiths are highly democratic and decentralized, giving the local congregation extensive latitude. There are national and local Jewish foundations, and federations such as the Allied Jewish Federation, but for the most part Jewish philanthropy operates at the synagogue level.

National Level

Most Protestant denominations have a two- or three-tiered structure. The national levels of most denominations are where the central administration takes place and where the corporate officers make the major ecclesiastical program and policy decisions. The national level also houses most of the grant and loan monies for the denomination.

In addition to programs such as the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and the Presbyterian Self-Development of People, which are profiled in the Grants Guides, the national level often houses a number of separate "pots" of money. These funds are usually located in the following offices: women's, empowerment, minority, housing, hunger, and homelessness. At the national level, grants tend to be in the $5,000-$10,000 range, with smaller amounts given at the regional and local levels. In the case of the empowerment funds, such as the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, grant amounts can be upwards of $30,000.

National Religious Foundations and Religious Orders. At the national level, but not directly under the administrative arm of a particular denomination, are a wide variety of religious foundations and religious orders that are a major source of funding for nonprofit organizations. The Unitarian Veatch program, based in New York, grants over nine million dollars annually to grassroots social change groups. The Jewish Fund for Justice and the Mazon Fund have average grant ranges of $5,000-$10,000. Religious orders, such as the Franciscans, also make sizable contributions to the community. Follow the specific guidelines for these foundations and religious order granting programs.


Closer to home are the regional or judicatory bodies of each major denomination. These are called by different names: in the Roman Catholic and Episcopal religions they are dioceses; United Methodists have conferences; the United Church of Christ has regions; and the United Presbyterians have two levels-synod and presbytery.

Back in the '60s, '70s and early '80s, the regional levels were a considerable source of funding for nonprofits. Now, as giving is concentrated more at the local and national levels, funding at the regional level is generally either flat or declining. However, these people are important-you will need their approval of your request for national funding. Wherever possible, we have included the addresses and phone numbers of most of the judicatory offices. Get to know the people in charge here. The best strategy is to involve a member of the denomination (either clergy or laity) in your organization and have them introduce you to the appropriate person.

Congregational Level

This is where the real action takes place. In every neighborhood, village and city in America, there are churches and synagogues. Get to know your minister, priest, pastor or rabbi. Don't limit yourself to your own faith community. If you provide valuable information or services, everybody will be happy to have you meet their congregations. Have your board members or volunteers introduce you to the religious leaders of their congregations. Try to find a stakeholder from your group who can make the introduction for you, but if that's not possible, call and make an appointment or just walk in and introduce yourself. Don't forget this step, because if you bypass local congregational leaders, they can hurt your efforts at establishing relationships with the congregation. They are also crucial in helping you with your funding efforts at the regional and national levels.

Within most congregations there are a number of groups that are involved with the mission, outreach, and community service work. These include youth groups, women's groups, men's groups, mission and social action committees, and prayer breakfasts. They get together regularly and are always looking for speakers to help educate them on the issues and programs in their community. These lay leaders of the congregation are the key to long-term support for your organization.

Although local congregations continue to support shelter for the homeless and food for the needy, they are increasingly looking toward economic projects that create new jobs in a community, as well as affordable transitional housing. Bear in mind that congregational giving at the local level in has remained relatively flat over the past few years, while the administrative costs continue to rise. As religious leaders are forced to use a larger portion of their budgets to keep the doors open, the roof from leaking and the prayer books in decent repair, there is less money available for the mission, and every dollar must count. Like other funders, religious communities are stressing collaboration among their grantees-if your organization duplicates a service provided across town, you might want to get together with your competitor and apply jointly for funds.

Local Involvement. Some judicatories are placing more emphasis on local congregations. They are looking for projects and programs that local congregations care about and are involved in. The Campaign for Human Development in the Roman Catholic community requires that low-income people control, or at least participate actively, in the decision-making process of organizations receiving funding.

Some churches may require local congregational involvement of volunteers. Some nonprofits make good use of volunteers and others do not. See if there are ways you can utilize volunteers-to provide program services, participate on a board, coordinate fund raising events, or keep your books. Once you have volunteers from the congregation involved in your organization, they may be willing to help you raise money. Volunteers speaking on your behalf will be received better than you if they can clearly explain the mission of the organization.

Non-cash Contributions. Don't underestimate the potential of in-kind contributions from the religious community. Many food pantries and homeless shelters in Ohio depend heavily on food, clothing and other supplies collected by local congregations. Many nonprofits have begun their operations by using free, or inexpensive office space supplied by congregations. Again, this initial support may lead to actual dollar support as the relationship grows. People give to people, and by not rushing to get money, but by building an interest and involvement in your organization, you will receive larger sums of money in the long run.

Tips and Strategies for Raising Money:

  1. Build the relationship first, then ask for money.
  2. Attend a religious service to get a feel for the congregation's interests and to meet key lay and religious leaders.
  3. Read current and past editions of the church bulletins and newsletters.
  4. Speak about your organization and the issues it confronts at church or synagogue meetings whenever possible and always when asked.
  5. Always pass around a sign-up sheet at religious meetings to get names and addresses for your newsletter and direct mail appeals.
  6. Get a minister, rabbi or key lay leader on your board or a committee.
  7. Invite members of the congregation to a meeting at your organization, or take them on a tour of your project or neighborhood.
  8. Travel at least once a year to the regional and national office to meet the key funders. It is critical that they know who you are. If possible, have the congregational leader make the introduction for you.
The religious community in America is the most philanthropic group of people in the world. Almost every social movement in America has had its roots in religious communities and they can be a powerful force for change. They are looking for opportunities to support projects, people and organizations that support their faith goals. If you are willing to take the time to understand their issues and develop relationships, their support can be long-term and sustaining.

Terry McCoy is director of the Hunger Network in Ohio which derives a large part of its funding from the religious community. Rich Male is president of and the former director of the Community Resource Center in Denver, Colorado. He has been working with local, national and international religious communities for the past 30 years. Reprinted from the California Grants Guide, Grant Guides Plus, 2000

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