Our team does a lot of work with organizations that are part of the United Methodist Church. In the last few years, we’ve been asked often about whether different organizations that are part of the United Methodist eco-system should begin a capital campaign. The UMC is at a particularly interesting historical juncture and, it seems, the likelihood of the church splitting is great. One of many articles on the anticipated church split appears here.
About a week ago, I spent time with a number of people in camping and retreat ministries from the Southeast Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church. Many of them expressed concern about campaigns that are ongoing, campaigns that are desperately needed but have been postponed because of uncertainty about the church’s future, and campaigns they hope to launch in the future.
This week, I thought of all of my Methodist friends who want to launch a campaign (or who are in the midst of a campaign) as I read a very good news article arguing that there was no time like the present to launch a capital campaign. The article argued that the economy is strong, there is an incredible wealth transfer ongoing, and that the conditions for a campaign could never be better.
While the article’s argument was interesting, I feel strongly that we can’t make campaign decisions based on external factors like the economy. Those things can and do change, turning sometimes on the power of a Presidential tweet or on the basis of other unpredictable things over which we have no control.
The most compelling reasons that campaigns either succeed or fail are not external, but internal to the fundraising organizations themselves: does the organization have a compelling case for the campaign, does the organization have strong staff and volunteer leadership, does the organization have a history of achieving fundraising success (and, therefore, has committed, loyal donors). Further, is the organization prepared to bear the costs of launching a campaign. Of course, for United Methodist organizations and affiliated organizations, the issue of whether or not the UMC splits is arguably an internal, not external, condition.
All of us, when we consider launching a campaign, need to get the best read possible on our internal readiness for a campaign. I believe strongly that a feasibility study conducted by a reputable fundraising consultant is the only way to do that. I’ve worked with far too many nonprofit organizations who were completely delusional (okay, maybe not completely) about their own internal strengths and oblivious about their internal weaknesses. All organizations and all organizational leaders—nonprofit and other—have blind spots. A good consultant can help an organization have a clear and realistic view.
In the last few years as United Methodist related agencies have asked me about campaigns, I have recommended that they do an internal assessment and move forward if they feel ready, despite the Methodist environmental uncertainty.
Now several years into the controversy (didn’t we all think this would be resolved in the 2019 special conference? And now, we think it will be resolved at the next annual conference? And it’s still possible that we’ll limp along in our unified structure for a few more years, no?), I still think that that’s the best advice. Whether or not moving forward with fundraising plans is a good idea or not won’t be the same for all United Methodist organizations. The answer will differ depending on the organization and its relationship to the church.
Wherever United Methodist organizations are located, they need to ask: Do we have committed, loyal donors who will give to us no matter what happens with the UMC structure? If the answer is yes, great. If not, we probably need to pause.
All affiliated organizations need to look, before a campaign, at the issue of ownership. This is not a small issue. If we consider building a building, who will own that building in the future? Does the future of the United Methodist Church possibly affect ownership of the organization or its assets? Again, depending on your organization, its legal structure, and its relationship to the church, the answer will be different for different Methodist-related organizations. If the answer to these questions is that ownership might change if or when the church changes/splits, then an organization has to address how it will disclose and discuss this with its prospective donors.
But if ownership is not and won’t be contested, if our support is loyal and strong, and if our case is compelling, I would advocate moving forward whether or not the UMC writ-large is determined to split. Should an organization affiliated with the United Methodist Church move forward with a campaign? The answer depends on its legal structure, property ownership, and relationship to the church. Legal and ownership issues aside, the answer to whether or not to move forward with a campaign depend on the same questions that determine campaign feasibility for non-Methodist organizations: whether or not the story and need are compelling and whether or not there are strong ties to people (staff, volunteers, and donors) interested in responding.