In his classic text on communication theory my good friend Em Griffin uses three game metaphors to illustrate what interpersonal communication is, and is not: bowling, ping-pong, charades.[i] Think about it: fundraising is ultimately a form of interpersonal communication. What do bowling, ping-pong and charades teach us about the fundraising games we play?

 Communication as bowling is a game the fundraiser plays alone. The bowler, as sender, delivers the ball which is the message. If successful the message (the ball) strikes the passive target (the bowling pins) with a thudding response. So, the preacher stands in the pulpit, states the need and the offering plate is passed. The stewardship committee mails its annual giving letter with the obligatory pledge card tucked inside. A church website  offers easy giving so that all a person need do is push the giving button. Alas, the individual sitting in the church pew, the donor opening their mail, the young adult visiting the website; none are passive like the bowling alley pins.  When fundraising is bowling, the accent is on the fundraiser and the message they deliver.

Communication as ping-pong reminds us that fundraising is also interactive. The ping-pong ball is the conversation piece.  The fundraiser puts the ball into play and the receiver/donor responds. The game goes back-and-forth with the players switching roles with each swing of the paddle. In the end, one person wins and the other loses. In fundraising it is tempting to treat the prospective donor as the person to beat; to win is to get the money. So, as in the game of ping-pong, the fundraiser deploys tactics (spins and cuts) to gain the advantage and get the money.   Congregations sometimes treat their annual stewardship program as if they were collecting the annual membership dues for a social club. Guilt and obligation become the trick shots utilized to secure a win. Ping-pong game over, the fundraiser has been successful if he/she secures the donation. As for the donor/giver, more often than not they feel joyless and manipulated. Fundraising as ping-pong may be interactive but one person always loses. In true dialogue both parties walkaway as winners with a sense of joy.

Communication as charades underscores a fundamental truth; interpersonal communications are complicated.  Fundraising is a complex relational transaction, as much an art as science. Communication is seventy percent nonverbal with body language and tone of voice as  revealing as the words used. In charades listening is imperative because words carry multiple meanings and mental pictures may be interpreted by both the messenger and recipient in different ways. A prospective donor’s first impressions are silently formed in milliseconds with snap judgments often shaping their response, even before the conversation begins.[ii] Life stories and institutional memories may inform the way a savvy fundraiser communicates with a donor.  So too do institutional experiences, informal observations and backwater conversations with friends influence the manner in which the prospective donor responds to the giving message.

Bowling, ping-pong, charades! When fundraising, we play all three games. However, interpersonal  communication theorists see bowling and ping-pong as simplistic games offering but limited success. It’s the game of charades that best captures the messy and multi-dimensional nature of effective fundraising.

As a metaphor for fundraising, charades reminds us that effective fundraisers think long, in terms of tomorrow, not merely today. That is why savvy congregations and faith-based organizations  focus on building long-term relationships, nurturing trust and growing generous disciples.  To paraphrase an ancient Hebrew sage: “Giving/wealth gained in haste will dwindle; it is the one who works for it who will keep it growing.”[iii]


[i] Em Griffin, Andrew Ledbetter, Glenn Sparks: A First Look at Communication Theory, Ninth Edition, pp. 52=53.

[ii] Sue Shellenbarger, The Mistakes You Make in a Meetings First Millisecond, Wall Street Journal, 02/01/18.

[iii] Proverbs 13:11, R.B.Y. Scott, “The Anchor Bible: Proverbs . Ecclesiastes.”