Steward Leaders: The Story we tell when we ask for money

Posted by Matthew Thomas

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matthew-thomas-2The way a steward leader talks about finances tells a story. Recently, I have heard a number of nonprofit and faith-based leaders making a pitch for funds. Many of those conversations start off something like this: "Our expenses are rising, but our main funders don't seem to realize that - they're cutting our funding from their budgets. We need money to pay staff, keep up facilities, and run our programs. We're running short, so we're asking you to help."

This same speech, or variations thereof, can be heard in appeal letters, video clips, newspaper ads, and news stories with near-constant certainty. The problem is that it sends all the wrong messages, over and over again. Here are a few things that people hear in these contexts:

  1. Our primary funders (donors) are shortsighted people who are incapable of helping us. Give us money and become like them!
  2. Even though we are subject to the same economic pressures as everyone else around us, we're struggling to make ends meet more than everyone else. We aren't capable of managing what we have well.
  3. We're having trouble prioritizing what to spend (y)our money on.Like what you're reading? Subscribe Now!
  4. We can't tell you why we're valuable to you if you don't already believe we are valuable.
  5. A big gift doesn't matter. Just a few bucks will get us to the next paycheck. Do you have a few pennies?
  6. We're poor - even though thousands (or millions) of dollars pass through our hands.
  7. We're ungrateful for what we have, and we'll drag your name through the mud if you quit giving to us. So please, give us something!
  8. Our business model isn't working and we don't know how to fix it. We're not entirely competent.
  9. The primary solution to our problem is to throw more money at it.
  10. You should feel guilty because you don't give us enough for us to do our job.

Who is going to give to that? 

No, that's not what we mean to say. Of course that's not what we mean to say. We don't mean to say that all about ourselves, our donors, or our constituents. Unfortunately, that's the story that people often hear when we start the conversation with increased expenses and decreasing revenue.

The story that people hear is that the donors, who should be helpers, are really opponents - getting in the way. And yet we're asking our audience to become donors. Will we be considered helpers or a hindrance?

Financial Roles Get the map! Since there is no vision, there is no clearly stated purpose for the funds, except to keep the machine grinding along. There's no value proposition.

If we want to strengthen our financial future, and increase our capacity to do the work we know to be important, we need a new starting point.

When asking for money, begin with the vision:

We believe the world can be ________. 

Then with values:

This is important to us because we believe ________.

Then with mission:

To that end, we do _________.

Finally, need and action:

We see that the world needs ________. To address that, we'd like to do _________. Will you join us?

How does this make our donors sound? What messages from above seem to recede into the background?

(Related: Changing your organizational narrative through the power of parable.)

Steward leaders have the capacity to change the tone of the story by starting with vision. And vision will draw others in to help so that valuable work can be accomplished.

I'd enjoy hearing your steward leader story - click the button below to send it to me!

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Topics: Matthew Thomas, Speaking About Money, steward leadership

Stewardship Confusion #2: Indirect Conversations Vs. Discussing Money

Posted by Matthew Thomas

At the end of May, we described the five stewardship confusions. On our 24 June 2014 post, we looked at the First Stewardship Confusion, the confusion between fundraising and stewardship. Today, we will look in depth at the second one:

Confusing lack of direct conversation about money with an inability to discuss financial matters.

Here is an example of a conversation we often have:

Leader: You know, talking about money with this group is going to be pretty hard. I don’t know if it’s possible.

Us: How do people talk about it already?

Leader: Well I don’t think anyone would state directly how much money they make a year if you asked them.

Us: Probably not. Perhaps they discuss money in other ways?

Leader: They certainly discuss the budget when it comes out each year. I think the meeting minutes usually state something like “Vigorous discussion followed.”

But yeah, they discuss the vacations they take, complain about the cost of home maintenance, and their kids’ college costs, wondering about retirement, and so on. And of course people discuss the cars other people drive and the clothes they wear – but usually not directly with the people under discussion.

matthew-thomas-2There are three basic issues going on in this conversation:

  1. The Leader doesn’t think it is possible to discuss money, since people don’t like to talk about it.
  2. People express money issues in a variety of ways, and discuss them quite a bit indirectly.
  3. The primary history of direct conversation about money appears to have been contentious, but the Leader doesn’t state that directly.

In order to overcome this confusion, steward leaders have a few options to look at things from new angles. Here are some things we have found:

  1. Most people get paid around twice a month – some get paid every two weeks, or a little more than twice a month. Most people think about money from a few days before they get paid to a couple of days after. In other words, from about the time it begins to run a bit short to the time most of the bills get paid.
  2. It is true that most people don’t like to talk about money directly with others outside their household. However, many people talk about it indirectly – verbally and through their actions.
  3. A household’s financial position changes its perspective and shapes its assumptions.
  4. Many organizations don’t talk about money unless they are asking for it and that on a periodic basis; most of their constituents think about it frequently.
  5. Poor financial practices in households in an organization’s constituency will negatively affect the organization’s capacity for financial health.
  6. Working with donors’ and constituents’ areas of felt needs, alongside teaching on theology of finances when not directly asking for funds, can build organizational capacity to discuss finances in a non-defensive manner that can build toward greater generosity.
  7. Some churches begin to open the door to financial conversations by hosting Financial Peace, Good Sense, Crown Financial Concepts or other personal finance seminars or classes. They then create space in their worship service or in their publications for people to share their success stories.
  8. The average household in the US holds $7,089 in credit card debt ($15,191 for indebted households, averaging to the lower number for everyone all together, with 46-47% of households indebted). Add to this the average mortgage of $154,365 and student loan debt of $33,607.[1] This contributes to financial guilt and shame in many households, as well as reducing their capacity to give. Steward leaders often have to address this issue before generosity can improve organizationally.
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[1] accessed 24 April 2014.

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Topics: stewardship, Matthew Thomas, Speaking About Money, Five Stewardship Confusions