Picture yourself in your first week as a residential student at a theological school. You’ve packed up your home, moved in, paid your utilities, and now you’ve got hundreds of dollars’ worth of books to buy.
That was the simple, vivid image at the heart of the Logos Project, a crowdfunding effort by Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana. A thorough communications plan, including press releases, messages to email lists, and YouTube videos, directed supporters to an Indiegogo webpage. There supporters could make a small donation to help students buy Greek textbooks. The broader call to action: “Join us as we form servants in Jesus Christ, who serve the Church without the burden of student debt.”
According to Bill Johnson, Concordia’s director of educational technology, the campaign raised $16,500 (including gifts through the Indiegogo site and others given through the seminary’ webpage). And it triggered unsolicited donations the following year for the same purpose.
What is crowdfunding? Adam Copeland, director of the Center for Stewardship Leaders at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, made crowdfunding the focus of his Ph.D. dissertation. His definition of the term is “asking a large number of people for a small amount of money.”
In contrast to most traditional fundraising, crowdfunding campaigns are tied to a specific goal. Entrepreneurs and creative artists use Kickstarter to finance projects. Kiva lets people make loans to micro-business owners in developing countries. Individuals and families share their stories on GoFundMe and ask friends to help cover expenses such as medical care or college studies.
The approach is not entirely new to the faith world. Jo Ann Deasy, director of institutional initiatives and student research at the Association of Theological Schools, notes that missionaries have traditionally appealed to a base of supporters to fund trips. But the internet has enlarged the scale of possibilities for communications, reach, and donation processing.
Pros and cons
Crowdfunding platforms let users inexpensively build attractive web pages, broadcast their campaigns through social media, and prompt supporters to promote the request for donations to their friends and contacts. The companies that operate the platforms make money by taking a small fee from each donation. Some sites offer reduced fees for nonprofits or pass administrative costs along to the donors. Donors can contribute small amounts from their computers or smart phones. Throughout the campaign, the donors and campaign managers can generate excitement by posting or sending updates like fundraising thermometers.
Copeland says his research indicates there is a strong potential for theological schools to embrace crowdfunding but that doing so “calls us to a different mindset that we haven’t been open to.”
Ron Sing, director of development at Northwest Baptist Seminary in Langley, British Columbia, remains skeptical. He perceives crowdfunding as a short-term approach to what should be a long-term commitment — cultivating a relationship of mutual caring between donor and school. He believes his job as a development professional is to ensure that givers don’t feel financial obligation or guilt, but that they give generously “because it is a cause they are truly passionate about and it resonates with them.” He likes the face-to-face, one-to-one contact that assures him that his donors are “cheerful givers.”
In Copeland’s assessment, the potential for cheerful giving is one of the advantages of crowdfunding. He says research from the business sector shows that people who back companies through crowdfunding often have a stronger connection to the “dream” behind the project than typical investors do. They tend to feel more invested in the organization’s vision for the future. “Crowdfunding allows the giver to join the thrill of the project, to feel they have a more direct hand in it.”
Nonetheless, Copeland says his findings confirm Sing’s concern: The institutions he studied reported that their experiments with crowdfunding “pushed them to appreciate that they needed to do more face-to-face asks.”
Copeland and Bill Johnson at Concordia agree that crowdfunding relies on fundamental principles that should be familiar to experienced fundraisers. On the Concordia Technology Solutions blog, Johnson says, “Technology should not transform ministry, but rather do the things that people don’t have to do so they can do what they do best.”
Technology can raise the production values for content, distribute messages, and process payments, but only people can tell stories, create strategies, and conduct relationships.
One tool in the development tool box
Concordia’s experience illustrates that the quality of storytelling is of paramount importance. One YouTube video for the Logos Project features a former student who had to borrow money for textbooks. He explains how much a small stipend for books would have meant to his family. In other videos, instructors explain the importance of studying biblical texts in their original languages. The promise is clear. Support a student now and you can strengthen that person’s ministry in the long run.
Building on the success of its first crowdfunding effort, Concordia launched a second campaign, this time to raise money for students who were servicing massive loans while working in modestly paid pastoral assignments. Yet this “Equipped to Serve” campaign fell short of its $17,000 goal by more than $10,000. Johnson thinks the response was weak because the story and goals were too vague. In that campaign’s videos, for example, graduating students talked about the cost of miscellaneous supplies like stoles and communion kits, rather than a specific need with a specific price tag.
Jim Hackney, senior director of development at Yale Divinity School, has not yet seen a reason to employ crowdfunding. “We are not using crowdfunding in this specific way,” he says. “We do have an excellent online giving site, but we direct all our marketing for it to specific alumni and other friends, not to the general public.”
Indeed, public campaigns are not a recommended strategy. Like traditional fundraising, crowdfunding can be directed to friends of the institution, alumni, or other targeted audiences. Copeland’s research suggests that a school is unlikely to attract a significant number of new supporters by creating a campaign. Yet crowdfunding can be useful for certain common fundraising challenges. Human faces expressing specific needs and proposing concrete solutions can move dormant supporters to make a first donation. And once they have given, people are more likely to give again.
Crowdfunding seems to work best by fulfilling a strategic role within a comprehensive development plan. In Concordia’s case, the request to pay for textbooks connected donors to the seminary-wide goal of reducing student debt — a goal that was developed after thorough research and careful planning. To achieve it, the seminary developed multiple avenues for input (that is, multiple methods and levels of donor engagement) and output (that is, multiple ways for students to reduce their indebtedness).
Crowdfunding won’t replace development offices. It may, however, address the state of affairs that Greg Henson and Gary Hoag described in “Charitable Giving and Your Seminary” (In Trust, New Year 2014). Respondents to the authors’ 2012 study of schools reported that annual fund giving was topsy-turvy, temporarily restricted gifts (for particular causes) were growing in popularity, and internet giving was growing rapidly. On the other hand, the effectiveness of direct mail and phonathons was decreasing.
Johnson advises theological schools not to be intimidated by the prospect of adding crowdfunding to the development team’s repertoire. A small experiment might yield a surprising result. “Don’t set a goal beyond your reach. Start with a modest goal and blow past it.”
Yet crowdfunding should never be the alpha and omega of a fundraising strategy. And, as Copeland advises, schools should proceed deliberately and not just throw traditional fundraising onto a crowdfunding platform. Rather than viewing crowdfunding as either a passing fad or a silver bullet, it can be one piece of a well-considered development strategy.
Concordia Theological Seminary’s Indiegogo page includes five named tiers of giving. Shown below are three out of the five tiers.
$1 - Λόγος-Logos-Word
We’re glad you believe in ensuring our future pastors have the Word of God in their hands from day one and want to support making that easier for them. We know not everyone can afford to give large amounts, but we’re thankful you’ve chosen to give. Please keep praying for us as we seek to serve our students, and especially pray for our students as they are formed into faithful servants for Christ’s Church.
$70 - πίστις-Pistis-Faith
You’re making it possible for us to buy two books for our future pastors to begin their study of God’s Word. While we can’t thank you enough, we hope a personal thank you on the Seminary Facebook page and your choice of one CD or DVD from our Kantorei will serve as a token of our appreciation.
$330 - ἀγάπη-Agape-Love
You’ll cover the entire cost for one student to begin studying God’s Word in Greek. As a thank you gift, you’ll get the whole package, a personal thank you on the Seminary’s Facebook page, one CD or DVD from our Kantorei, a Kramer Chapel Model made of LEGO® bricks and a personal thank you from an incoming student who has benefited from your generosity.