We all know that large, transformational gifts can positively impact a parish’s mission and its community for generations to come. They can spark a fundraising campaign to new heights and can help build momentum to achieve aspirational goals. But how do you go about attracting such gifts?

The answer requires a few more questions.

Do you know who in your parish has the most giving potential? Do you know families who could be major givers but are not currently donating at that level? These donors have the means to make transformational gifts to your parish, but they need to be cultivated and invited to do so. Understanding how to go about both identifying and growing your relationships with these donors are the most important keys to success, and it may take shifting the way you approach fundraising strategy altogether.

First, it is crucial to not overlook the importance of major donors whether you are in a campaign, in between, or just getting started. Consider the fact that in America, 91 percent [1] of high net worth individuals—those who have investable assets of $1 million or more—donate to charity, compared to 56 percent [2] of the general population. More importantly, high net worth households give the most to religion over any other philanthropic sector. The most recent data shows that over 36 percent [3] of these households give to religious causes.

Overcoming Common Challenges

While the numbers show that these types of donors may consider supporting your mission, parish leaders can often feel apprehensive about how to approach these relationships. Developing a positive mindset about why you are undertaking this aspect of ministry can seem challenging, but it’s important to understand how philanthropy and the message of the Catholic Church are related. Father Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest, wrote astutely about the spiritual dimension of fundraising for the church:

“Fundraising is proclaiming what we believe in such a way that we offer other people an opportunity to participate with us in our vision and mission. Fundraising is precisely the opposite of begging. When we seek to raise funds we are not saying, ‘Please, could you help us out because lately it’s been hard.’ Rather, we are declaring, ‘We have a vision that is amazing and exciting. We are inviting you to invest yourself through the resources that God has given you—your energy, your prayers, and your money—in this work to which God has called us.’ Our invitation is clear and confident because we trust that our vision and mission are like ‘trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither’ (Ps. 1:3).”

In addition to understanding the role that fundraising plays, simply becoming more informed about who your donors are and how they may want to contribute in the future will ease any discomfort about discussing their potential contributions with them.

A few years ago, at the beginning stage of a major diocesan fundraising campaign in the Midwest, CCS Fundraising recommended to the presbyterate that each parish should identify those families who could be asked to consider leadership gifts of six-figures or more for their parish campaigns. A senior priest raised his hand and declared that he had never once looked at what people gave and would not start now for this campaign.

The Bishop provided an immediate and effective response. He replied that if you don’t know where a person is regarding their relationship to the church, how can you minister to them? This sparked a great discussion about what each parish did know about their parishioners. It was discovered in the process that followed that there were several high net worth individuals who gave often to the church but at levels well below their means. The reason was two-fold: no one had done the research to know their potential to make a transformational gift, and they weren’t asked.

Chances are, through open and honest conversations with these donors, your goals to help others in your community will be aligned. They will also understand the role they can play in making these goals a reality.

Taking a Closer Look

Understanding who your potentially impactful parishioners are is an important first step. One way to begin is to conduct a review of the past three years of individual offertory contributions from your parish. Then, make a list of your top 10 or 20 financial supporters during this time period. Once your list is complete, make note of your current relationships with these donors. Ask yourself, how well do we know these families? Are they also engaged in other parish ministries or on the financial council or pastoral council? Making note of these criteria will help you identify who is already heavily involved and who could benefit from further outreach.

The next step is to identify other families who you may perceive to have significant financial resources but whose offertory support may not reflect their potential capacity. This may take further work. While it is a significant challenge to know with specificity any family’s financial circumstances, some indicators of strong financial potential can be estimated from occupations.

Individuals who own businesses, are senior executives at larger companies, or work in highly- compensated professions in medicine, banking, finance, or the law constitute many of the larger donors to churches and other nonprofit organizations.

Another way to gain a better understanding is to perform what’s called a wealth screening analysis to help identify families who have outsized capacity that may not arise from looking only at their offertory or occupation. Even if you are not planning a major campaign, such an exercise can help you identify families flying below the radar and allow you to engage them more deeply in the work of the parish.

Once you have compiled a list of families that are either currently giving large amounts or, based on perceived capacity, might be amenable to increasing their support, rank them by whether you know them well, know them in passing, or have not met them at all.

Developing Strategies

Families You Know Well

Look to how engaged they are in the life of the parish. Are they on councils, engaged in ministries, or involved in other parish-based groups such as the Knights of Columbus? If not, consider meeting with them to explore other ways their gifts could be used to help the parish. This is an opportunity to share with them your vision for the parish and to learn their own thoughts and vision for where the parish is headed.

Families You Know in Passing

Seek ways to get to know them better. Consider inviting them out to a meal or for coffee. This will give you an opportunity to come to know them better and to understand how they view the parish. Can they be invited to join a ministry or a council? Are there ways they can become more engaged in the parish? Do they have suggestions or feedback for your vision that you hadn’t considered? It will also be helpful to find out where they are in regard to their faith journey. If they are interested, see if there might be a ministry or service role that would appeal to them.

Potentially Impactful Families You Don’t Know

Consider asking other families in the parish with whom you have established a good relationship if they know them and can facilitate an introduction. From there, you can apply the same conversation as you did for those you know in passing.

The Importance of Stewardship

Remember that successful philanthropy is a relationship, not a transaction. Just as you do with other families you get to know, learn details about them and show you appreciate them. Send a birthday card or anniversary card. Recognize a child’s accomplishments. Greet them by name after Mass. Additionally, thank them. Not everyone is looking to have their name on a wall or to be publicly acknowledged, but everyone likes to be thanked. Even a simple phone call or note of appreciation can make a huge difference.

Once you have identified families with extraordinary financial resources and start taking the first steps to implementing a strategy, you can begin inviting them on the journey of fulfilling the vision of the parish and the church.

[1] Bank of America: U.S. Trust Study of High Net Worth Philanthropy, 2016 

[2] IUPUI Lilly Family School of Philanthropy: Philanthropy Panel Study, 2017

[3] Bank of America: U.S. Trust Study of High Net Worth Philanthropy, 2016


CCS Fundraising is a strategic consulting firm that partners with nonprofits for transformational change. To access our full suite of perspectives, publications, and reports, visit our insights page.

About the Author

Timothy J. Dockery, CFRE is a Vice President with CCS. He has led successful campaigns for several dioceses as well as numerous parishes. Tim has presented on stewardship and fundraising topics to the National Catholic Development Conference (NCDC), the International Catholic Stewardship Conference (ICSC), the Diocesan Fiscal Management Conference (DFMC), and numerous regional meetings of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP).