Photo courtesy of Lexington Rescue Mission

The Fundraising Roller Coaster

How missions and ministries are navigating financial ups and downs

by Michael Martin and Warren Bird

I (Michael) had the privilege of visiting not long ago with Tom De Vries, president of Citygate Network, on one of his recent trips to Washington, D.C. As we were catching up, Tom asked great questions about trends in giving, headwinds rescue missions were facing, and how ministry leaders were doing since they sometimes felt they were swimming upstream in a challenging fundraising environment.

Earlier, I had received an email from the president of a national Christ-centered ministry focused on drug and alcohol rehabilitation. “We’re really behind and feeling the pinch,” was the idea he conveyed. “How are we doing compared to others?”

They’re not alone in being curious. Each year the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) produces a much-anticipated State of Giving report, focusing on cash giving and other financial trends. More than 150 of ECFA’s members identify their primary mission with our ministry category of “Rescue Missions and Home-less.” Our report helps leaders see the financial ups and downs of ministries similar to theirs. In fact, here’s what our most recent State of Giving report (available at, pages 40 and 23) said about this front-line group:

Cash giving (inflation adjusted) to Rescue Missions and Homeless

Translation? The typical rescue mission, homeless ministry, and alcohol and drug rehabilitation ministry has experienced ups and downs over recent years in its funding, even while weathering a pandemic and facing such other national events as the rise in asylum seekers and the fentanyl crisis. What are some specific ways ECFA members have ridden this fundraising roller coaster and even helped shape where the roller-coaster track will be laid? We recently interviewed two ministries that have been accredited by ECFA, each for more than 30 years.

“We all love stories of the big check that appeared unexpectedly in the mail, but most of the way God has provided for us is through the work of fundraising teams, challenging donors, and growing relationships.” —Jason Dick

Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission

“We all love stories of the big check that appeared unexpectedly in the mail, but most of the way God has provided for us is through the day-to-day work of fundraising teams, challenging donors, and growing relationships,” said Jason Dick, who has served Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission since 2019 and is the Chief Development Officer. He points out that a good donor retention rate for a ministry is 80 to 85 percent, which means that merely to stay even, the ministry must develop replacement sources for the lost 15 to 20 percent of givers. And that’s if the remaining donors and other financial sources maintain their same giving level from the previous year,hopefully with inflation adjustments as well!

“One of the things I love about fundraising is that I believe it’s ministry,” Jason commented. “I’m amazed that God chooses to do ministry through us.”

Many ministries serving the needy saw an initial outpouring of funds during the start of the 2020 pandemic. Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission was no exception. “During the first years of the pandemic, we saw somewhat of a surge, sort of a COVID excitement,” he said. “During COVID, everyone got hyperfocused about their own community.” This meant that many past donors engaged with the mission at a higher level, plus new donors came aboard — people the mission had a relationship with but had not been very connected with in recent years.

That emphasis has matched the mission well, because for the people they serve, the vast majority are from the city where they’re residing, not bussed in or a recent transplant. “We’ve seen more of an economic-based homelessness, primarily due to inflation. Also, fentanyl addiction has increased dramatically,” he said.

However, as wonderful as community-based giving has been, it hasn’t been sustained for them. “Like many other missions, during the last 18 months, that focus on community emphasis in giving has significantly decreased,” Jason observed. As a result, “last year was pretty hard.”

“What’s worked well lately is how we show impact. We try to show the piece the donor plays in that impact. That perspective is what’s made us different in the eyes of many donors.” —Jason Dick

The irony is that the need is always present and is even growing. “I have yet to find a nonprofit that had enough funds to meet the need — and especially when working with homeless, where the need is routinely two to three times what our resources can provide,” he said. “I wish that announcing the increased need would trigger more donations. In fact, homelessness is a greater need in Seattle today than it was during COVID, but it’s not as strong a felt need to donors.”

“We know generosity is from the Lord. That’s foundational for what makes us different from other organizations.” —Perry Hines

That downturn in donor response has not kept them from praying and searching for other funding pathways. “What’s worked well lately is how we show impact,” he said. Specifically, “we try to show the piece the donor plays in that impact. That perspective is what’s made us different in the eyes of many donors.”

This interaction with donors is where the relational component comes in. “I’m hoping we can match the donor’s passions and the mission’s needs — and that takes time,” Jason explained. “Giving has a lot to do with trust. Relationships take time to see fruit. Fundraisers typically have a high turnover rate, and yet it takes several years before you’ve had enough moments with a donor to have gained significant trust.”

But that investment often yields good dividends. “People give more because of trust and because relationships are present where we’ve talked with them about ministry impact but also about them — from their family to their passions,” he said.

For Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, the lion’s share of donations comes from individuals. While the biggest gifts are from individuals, the mission also cultivates businesses, foundations, and churches — the latter of which also include heavy volunteering.

While they’ve broken revenue into numerous channels — major donors, midlevel donors, planned giving, digital, foundations, and more — the development team regularly revisits two markers: (1) meaningful conversations (a two-way discussion by phone, email, or text), and

(2) engaged “asks,” where the mission asks for a specific dollar amount. Those two markers are counted and tracked across many channels.

What gives Jason hope? “We literally see miracles every day — people broken by addiction who become vibrant community members,” he replied. They’ve been blessed to see that 66 percent of those who graduate from their programs maintain sobriety a year after program. “Only God working through our programs can produce that kind of impact!”

But he also draws hope from donors. He said, “I love hearing about donors who are excited, like the midlevel donor who says, ‘I really believe in your impact. I’ve never given $1,000 but here it is.’” For Jason, “Those are awesome conversations.”

Wheeler Mission in Indianapolis

Another Christ-centered rescue mission, founded in Indianapolis in 1893, is Wheeler Mission. The mission’s 2023 “was a very good year,” said Perry Hines, president and CEO. Although the team saw some softening in core contributions, that was balanced by robust estate planning. “But you don’t want to depend on that!” he added.

What’s working well for Wheeler? “We know generosity is from the Lord. That’s foundational for what makes us different from other organizations,” Perry said. This includes making sure that all their partners see how important it is for Wheeler to stay true to its mission. “We weathered COVID well because we brought home the message that we’re doing this to provide hope to the hurting. That’s a timeless message and should always resonate with believers,” he said. “Now our challenge is to continue to remain relevant to our donors, clearly communicate the impact they make, and cultivate an on-going relationship.” That relational component has a high value in everything the mission does. “I can’t say enough about the value of relationships, long-term relationships at that,” Perry said.

This shows up at multiple levels. Senior staff have had incredible longevity. “Long-term staff are essential for long-term relationships,” Perry observed. “We’ve had the blessing of people committed to this job as a calling.” Even partnerships with fundraising consultants have run for more than 25 years.

In addition, fully 30 percent of Wheeler’s staff are graduates of their programs. “Who better to know who [you] are and who better to tell your story than your graduates?” Perry asked.

“Longterm staff are essential for longterm relationships. We’ve had the blessing of people committed to this job as a calling.” —Perry Hines

Beyond being so people-focused, Wheeler’s staff emphasize the importance of integrated fundraising efforts. “It would be a big mistake to look separately at our volunteers, marketing, corporate sponsorships, special events, and other fundraising components if we weren’t regularly evaluating our overall consistency of message and measuring our progress toward key organizational performance indicators,” he said. These cover everything from the work of development officers with individual contributors to integration with direct mail and also social media — and this year with artificial intelligence technologies too.

When other missions ask help from Wheeler, the coaching starts very simply. “We ask them to identify the ‘secret sauce’ that makes them who they are,” Perry said. “For us, we’re not in the rescue mission business, but the life-transformation business. Our emergency shelter services, drug and alcohol addiction recovery programs, and other services simply become the tools we use for Christ do the life transformation. That outlook guides every decision we make!”

Missions that are struggling may think they need help with specifics, such as, How do you integrate your social media into direct mail? That’s important, Perry believes. “But they also need to wrestle with the bigger question: who you are and what you’re trying to accomplish.”

“Our goal is life transformation and productive citizens. Outputs are meals served, while outcomes are how many people are sober three years later. That’s a difference that will last.” —Perry Hines

The answer to that question, for Perry, comes by looking at outcomes and not just outputs. “Our goal is life transformation and productive citizens. Outputs are meals served, while outcomes are how many people are sober three years later. That’s a difference that will last.”

What you can do now

At ECFA, we are honored to accredit and learn from ministries like Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission and Wheeler Mission. As you glean from their stories, here are some specific suggestions:

  1. If your ministry’s giving has had ups and downs in recent years, know that you are not alone and there is a pathway ahead to find God’s provision.
  2. Discuss with staff ways that your ministry could improve enhancing trust with existing donors and potential donors. ECFA’s mission of “enhancing trust” is not just a slogan.ECFA partners with its members to help them build and maintain the financial accountability that results in donor trust. To learn how ECFA can partner with your ministry through accreditation, visit Thanks to a generous grant from the Murdock Trust, use code MURDOCK24 to waive the $500 application fee.
  3. Explore ECFA’s Seven Standards of Responsible Stewardship™ at to learn how to operate with integrity. Specifically, check out Standard 7 which is related to ethical fundraising. ECFA also offers many resources on governance, fundraising, legal compliance, financial management, and leadership ( ECFA is a one-stop shop for ministries of all sizes to access the latest information they need to maintain financial accountability, leadership integrity, and trust.

We pray that these insights are helpful to you as you navigate changes in giving and that you remain strong and faithful as stewards of God’s resources!

Michael is president and CEO of ECFA. Warren is senior vice president of research and equipping.

To read more articles like this from our bi-monthly members-only magazine Instigate email Aly Zadurowicz about membership today.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of INSTIGATE magazine. © Citygate Network, All rights reserved. Please email for additional permissions.