Striking the right balance between maintaining the loyalty of Christian donors and attracting the support of the wider public is a conundrum that the heads of fundraising at most Christian charities will have grappled with at some point.
A decade ago, the international development charity Christian Aid conducted an experiment to find out if it would be more profitable to put more resources into fundraising from people who did not attend church. Before then, most of its income had come from collections in church or from envelopes distributed door to door during Christian Aid Week.
"Over five years, we explored recruiting people we had no prior relationship with, competing on the same platform as Save the Children and Oxfam," says Paul Langley, head of inspiring participation at Christian Aid.
Largest recruitment channel
When the charity analysed the results, it found that Christian Aid Week – during which churchgoers raise most of the income – was still its largest recruitment channel. And it found that the typical donor during the experiment identified themselves as having Christian values, making them almost indistinguishable from the charity's traditional donors.
"We concluded that the most cost-effective way of getting more donors was to refocus on those who identify themselves as Christian and reach out to the wider community through them," says Langley.
Now all the charity's voluntary income is directly or indirectly raised through the 21,000 churches that fundraise for it, he says. Of the £56m the charity wants to raise this year, £11m will come from Christian Aid Week and the rest from legacy gifts or appeals connected with the week.
The advantages this Christian supporter base brings to the charity are clear. Christian Aid capitalises on Christian festivals (Easter, Lent, Christmas and Harvest Festival) to run fundraising appeals, and takes advantage of the ready-made community fundraising structures in churches to mobilise large groups of volunteers and to twin its overseas projects with individual congregations. Churchgoers can speak on Skype directly to beneficiaries of the projects their churches are twinned with.
But what are the challenges of having a donor base so centred on faith? "The charity sector is waking up to the fact that people who go to church tend to be more generous, so you're now seeing a lot of organisations trying to fundraise in the church," says Langley. "It can be argued that in the church there are more committed givers to Oxfam than to Christian Aid. WaterAid also has a pretty comprehensive offering for churches that wasn't there five or 10 years ago."
Decline in attendance
Another issue is the steep decline in church attendance, particularly at Anglican and Methodist churches. Langley says this is a huge problem for Christian Aid Week because congregations used to be a major source of volunteers. To protect its income, Christian Aid has been forming new relationships with denominations that are bucking the trend by growing, such as Pentecostal and evangelical churches.
In the long term, though, the best option might be for Christian charities such as Christian Aid to consider merging rather than competing for a diminishing supporter base, says Langley. "The market for Christians isn't growing, so at some point there will have to be some consolidation, and that could be very interesting from a fundraising point of view," he says. "It's one avenue that should be looked at."