Stewardship Outside-The-Box: Changing GIVING Language Changes GIVING Behavior

by The Rev. Ken Howard

Pledge-Aholics Anonymous

For the first decade of my ordained ministry, I always hated stewardship season. I alway felt like I was being a bit dishonest with my congregation. I started out every “stewardship season” preaching about stewardship as a spiritual practice, when what we really wanted was for them to open up their wallets. And by the end of the season, we were increasingly talking about how much more of their money we needed to meet our budget (while still cloaking the need in spiritual terms). 

The Perils of Archaic (Yet Loaded) Language

With more and more newcomers having smaller and smaller religious vocabularies, words like “pledging” and “tithing” seemed less and less helpful. With each successive generation, they  sounded increasingly remote and archaic, yet at the same time increasingly loaded: like the way the rite of Holy Matrimony used to require the bride and groom to “plight their troth.” I was always having to translate, explaining that the word “pledge” was not as ominous as it seemed: “It’s only a best estimate of what you think you can give,” I would say, “You can change it at any time if your financial circumstances change.”

But increasingly, my explanations weren’t getting through. It seemed like every year people were taking longer to turn in their pledges, like they were taking it too seriously.

Sometimes, WAY too seriously…

A parishioner called during the annual pledge drive to apologize for the size of her family’s pledge (they were a young couple with two small children). This was their second pledge drive: for the second time in their lives they were considering what they would pledge to give. There were hints of guilty feelings and tearfulness in her voice as she said, “Father Ken, I’m calling to say we are so, so sorry that we will not be able to pledge as much this year as last. My husband lost his job this year and we had to take out a second mortgage to fulfill the pledge we already made.”

I was horror struck. 

I told her to take whatever was left of what they had borrowed to pay the church and either apply it to the loan or use it to live on. I explained, yet again, that their pledge is only an intention – an estimate – and that we did not expect them to pay more than they could afford. She remembered me saying that. But the word “pledge” simply carried too much emotional weight. My final words were, “Just remember: Your family comes first. You are not married to the church.”

And then it hit me: What if we just changed the language of giving?

What if we just abandoned our archaic, emotionally-loaded language and just spoke in plain English first, rather than explaining after? And we did. The very next year we announced our “Giving Campaign.” We asked our people to balance their desire to give with their ability to afford it. And we called this making a “Giving Estimate.”

How did changing the language of giving change the behavior of giving? 

Thankfully, we achieved our intended goal: Never again did we receive a tearful call about second mortgages.

But our experiment had several unintended, yet very beneficial, impacts on the results of our Giving Campaign:

  • We received significantly more Giving Estimates, mostly from long time members who never previously pledged.
  • Giving Estimates came in significantly more quickly, cutting the time required for the campaign and follow-up by half. 
  • Giving Estimates were significantly more generous than pledges were the previous year.

And most surprising of all…

  • Our people were significantly more generous in fulfilling Giving Estimates than they were with pledges.

Totally counterintuitive, right?

Perhaps not. 

Perhaps that’s what happens when people make their giving decisions from a place of freedom, rather than guilt.