The two of us have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years, first as college-aged and post-college singles seeking support for one-week trips, summer internships, and then one- and two-year terms in Berlin, where we met. I was probably especially bad at it, a combination of my innate laziness, shortcomings in time-management skills, an introvert’s native fear and loathing toward phone calls (especially cold calls), shyness exacerbated by feeling foolish asking people to fund some dumb kid’s post-collegiate foray into longer-term mission work, and battles with loneliness and depression.
Our next time around, we had some advantages: we were married, I was working toward ordination, our first child was born—we were, by at least a few generally accepted measures, Real Grown-Ups. Moreover, we were returning to a city where we’d served before, so the things we’d learned and experienced were relevant to our new call; for that matter, we were both veteran fundraisers, with a better idea of how to budget our time and focus our energy, two pools of previous supporters and contacts to combine, and, very importantly, two complementary sets of gifts and skills to apply to the task.
As of this writing, we’re trying to finish up a third round of fundraising, not starting from zero as we had in the past, but still needing to pick up several thousand dollars in monthly support in order to be cleared for departure. In these many years of doing this work, we’ve often been struck by how difficult it is to communicate some of the basics of what it means (and doesn’t mean) for us to live on support and we need and are asking for when we make our appeals.
In what follows, I’d like to offer a little overview of how it all works—not a FAQ, exactly, but an intro to what living on the support we raise means for missionaries in our organization (I can’t speak to other agencies’ policies, though a lot of what’s true for us may well be applicable to other missionaries you might know). We usually don’t have time to lay all this out, so I hope this can help folks make sense of what some of the jargon means and what we’re trying to get across in our communications.
The first basic thing to understand is that we are salaried employees of our agency, MTW. That might seem obvious, but I suspect it’s not always really clear to everybody. Being employed by the agency means that they’re the “company” that pays our salary, benefits, and work expenses, and it also means that when you support us, you are more fundamentally supporting MTW. The money you send in belongs to them, and under all normal circumstances, they allocate it in accordance with your wishes—specifically, it’s earmarked for the account out of which we get paid.
This also means that the amount of our compensation is set by the agency: our pay doesn’t vary depending on how much support comes in any given month, since the donations aren’t going directly into our pocket. If a big supporter drops us, forgets to send a check, or whatever, that doesn’t (necessarily) mean we can’t pay rent and buy groceries that month, so we enjoy a measure of real stability. On the other hand, this is the reason we spend so much time talking about the percentage of our support need we’ve raised—because our employer commits to compensating us at a certain level, we need to be able to show that the support that will come in over the course of a four-year term will be enough to maintain that level of compensation while keeping our account in the black.
On that note, it’s important to realize that we are responsible to raise every dollar of our support. Some agencies, especially denominational ones like ours, partially or fully subsidize their missionaries’ support out of their general fund, but that’s not how our denomination does it. (There are various reasons for this, but I’m more concerned here to make sure the facts are clear than to discuss the whys and wherefores.) You could say we’re “listener supported,” and just like public and nonprofit broadcasters, we need to do “pledge drives” every so often to meet our budget.
There’s a key difference between us and public broadcasting, of course: the broadcasters are always here, always providing their service to their supporters, always doing some measure of advertising, and always picking up new listeners and viewers. Their regular pledge drives only need to run for short periods in order to bring in enough gifts and new memberships to cover the annual budget. We, on the other hand, spend most of our time out of the country, and while we do our best to communicate well with our supporters, we don’t have many chances to find new ones, except about every four or five years when we’re on home assignment.
For that reason, we tend to talk about our monthly far more than our annual budget (let alone the cost of an entire term on the field). Some of that is a matter of sticker shock; a nonprofit broadcaster trying to raise half a million dollars or more for its operating budget for the next six months to a year probably doesn’t raise eyebrows, but it’s pretty daunting to talk about that level of funding for one missionary family, even when it’s spread over four years. And the fact is that raising that amount of money in the form of one-time gifts would take an awfully long time for most missionaries—and then we’d have to do it all over again before every term.
This is why recurring gifts (what public broadcasters and similar organizations call “members”) are our fundraising lifeblood. Over the course of a 48-month term, someone who can give $50 or $100 each month without missing it has contributed $2,400 or $4,800 respectively, daunting sums for many of the same people if they were asked to give up front. The same logic applies to any recurring giving: if you’re giving $300 every quarter, $600 semiannually, or $1,200 once a year, then it’s the same (from our perspective) as if you were giving $100 every month—it adds up to $4,800 over the course of those four years. More than once, we’ve run up against the perception that anything other than a monthly pledge is “one-time,” but it’s really not. If you can pledge to give a lump sum every December, then you’ve knocked off 1/12 of that amount from our monthly need.
So where do genuine one-time gifts fit in? For us, they were most important when we were first starting out. There are several types of one-off expenses that roll around each term (things like plane fare to and from our field), so there needs to be “cash on hand” to cover those; we had to get a certain balance in our account along with having our full support need pledged before we could leave for Germany for the first time. One-time gifts (plus any surplus in monthly giving) add to the amount of “cash on hand,” which provides the buffer that makes up for any monthly shortfall. In our case, because we have a healthy balance in our account, once the one-off expenses for this term are accounted for, one-time gifts contribute to our monthly need at 1/48 of their total value.
Finally, I think it’s worth talking about what we mean (and don’t mean) by a “pledge.” It may be simplest to describe it this way: pledging support to us means writing us into your budget, planning to support us as part of the normal use to which you put your financial resources. It’s a plan, not a legal obligation or a sacred vow. I worry that we’ve over-spiritualized missionary (and other ministry) support, so that people feel like they can’t make commitments like this unless they have some extraordinary measure of faith, or unless they feel presumptuously certain about their future financial prospects. But the reality is that every item in your personal budget is a pledge to use what God has provided to you in a certain way.
We—and I do think we speak for most missionaries here—understand that none of us knows the future. Anyone who’s been on the field for any length of time has lost support, whether it’s because supporters lost jobs, had surprise quadruplets, were diagnosed with a serious illness, decided another ministry’s need was more urgent or important—or died. We know these things happen, and we don’t see anyone who stops giving because of them as having broken a promise (or as having been unwise to make the commitment in the first place). On the flip side, we have a number of supporters who genuinely don’t know how much money they’ll make any given month, such as those who work on commission. Some of these just give whenever they can; some even make a pledge for a minimum amount, then often go above that in their actual giving. The diversity of circumstances among our dozens of supporters is impressive, and it’s heartening.
I hope this is a helpful walk-through of how the whole support thing works for us. We’d be happy to hear any questions we haven’t addressed, and I may come back to edit, clarify, or add information as needed, so feel free to be in touch!