Three Red Fire Buckets

Our Bucket is Leaking!

The perils of donor attrition.

Dear Fr. Zagloba,

I was talking to Carmen about the church budget and she mentioned that one of the big problems is that our revenue budget must be filled by fewer and fewer people. We got to looking at the numbers and saw that over the course of the past 10 years the total number of parishioners has dropped by more than 20%.

This doesn't surprise either of us. Father, you know the statistics about the decline in St. Catherine's membership, so I'm just pointing out the elephant in the room. Have you also noticed that the elephant is grey? The grey heads vastly outnumber the number of youths or young families. This should be a real concern.

Now I don't want you to think that my main concern is whether we're going to reach the budget targets this year. This is a much bigger issue than that. The budget is a symptom of a much larger problem. Kind of like discovering that my toddler has a fever but not knowing whether it's the flu or the bubonic plague. The budget issue points to a much bigger question.

The Parable of the Leaky Bucket

There's an old parable that fundraisers use to talk about donors. Imagine a leaky bucket. You need to fill up a bucket but it has holes. To make any headway, you need a scoop that adds water at least as fast as it runs out. You can fill some of the holes to slow the leaks, but the bucket isn't ever going to be watertight. How do you ever get that bucket full?

This analogy points to three very important fundraising concepts: donor attrition, donor retention, and donor acquisition.

The term 'donor attrition' points to the reality that someone who donates today, who maybe has donated for a long time, may never donate again. The reality of donor attrition means that our donor base will eventually shrink to nothing if we do nothing to bring in new donors. Donor attrition is the leaks.

'Donor retention' is the concept that it takes fewer resources to keep a current donor than to find a new donor. By doing a good job cultivating the organization's relationships with its donors, donor attrition is limited and the withering of the donor file can be delayed or even reversed. Donor retention is plugging the holes.

One last concept, donor acquisition. Donor acquisition is the strategies and programs that bring in new donors. Even with the best donor retention, donor attrition will eventually kill the organization if there isn't an intentional focus on donor acquisition. Donor acquisition is the scoop.

Is the bucket half-empty or half-full?

Now think of our church as the bucket. Each of these fundraising concepts has their analog in parish life. Our parish gets smaller when people stop attending. They move, pass away, or (God forbid) lose the faith. This is like donor attrition. When people get involved in the parish, when they are fed spiritually, they tend to stick around. This is like donor retention. When we invite and welcome new people to the Church, this is like donor acquisition.

Now I want to repeat, I don't want to focus on what the church is getting from these people. The budget is a side effect. The focus absolutely must be on what they get from the Church. All people, every person who has ever been born, needs the saving love of Jesus Christ. If our church body isn't healthy and active, many people out there will never meet their Savior. There is no greater tragedy.

Just how fit is the Body?

I want you to think about St. Catherine's incarnationally. Our parish is, quite literally, the mystical Body of Christ in miniature. How healthy do you think this Body is? St. Paul talks about each person being a member of the Body and possessing different gifts according to the part God created them to be. An eye and a hand are different, says the Apostle, and so there should be no bickering between them.

St. Paul was dealing with a different problem than we are. He had people who were contentious because the 'hand' thought itself more important than the 'eye'. This isn't our problem at all. If you were to ask most of the people at St. Catherine's, they would tell you they have no idea if they are part of the hand, the eye, the toenail, or the appendix.

If you were to imagine the 'Body' at St. Catherine's, would it look like a muscular Middle Eastern Carpenter, trained by a life of labor to carry the heaviest of Wood? Or is it more like a Modern American Couch Potato? In shape only to the extent that 'round' is technically a shape.

Or does it look like the parish demographics? Greying, slightly rheumatic, near-sighted, too tired to get up and do much of anything. "Oh beauty ever ancient, ever new…" I think we have a good handle on the ever ancient part, but what about the ever new? Is the Body here at St. Catherine's constantly renewing itself the way it should? Or is it even suffering from leprosy, where pieces of the body (like our young people) are just falling away behind us as we totter around?

100 days to rock hard abs

I'm not suggesting that we need more activity simply for the sake of activity. Instead, try to imagine what this Body looks like when it is healthy and strong. "Time and Talent" at its very best means getting people engaged in the discovery of what part of the body God created them to be and supporting their activity so they can fulfill their purpose.

So people who have the gift of evangelism need to be out evangelizing, the people who have the gift of administration should be organizing, the people who have the gift of hospitality should be welcoming people to the parish, etc. And when the Body is healthy, it will do what bodies do naturally. Grow. And since it is supernatural, it will grow until it reaches the full stature of Christ.

I don't think this will easy or simple. If you've ever started working out after a long period of doing nothing, you know what your muscles normally do. They complain. They ache. They give out too soon. But gradually, through persistence, they become strong and supple. As the old Marine Corps saying goes, "pain is weakness leaving the body."

Fill that bucket with Living Water

Jesus gave our church a mission: "Go therefore and make disciples…". This is the mission of St. Catherine's. It is not, "Go, therefore, and make budget." If we really focus on our central purpose, on what God created the Church to do, the second question will take care of itself.

If we as a parish focus on helping each person to discover their identity in Christ and learn how to live that to the fullest, our Church will overflow. Instead of worrying about dying of thirst, we'll have to start thinking about getting a bigger bucket.


The Almoner

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Image courtesy of Steve Greer , via Creative Commons License, some rights reserved.