Q: Can a church member designate a tithe for a special project? This would affect our general fund. I hope you will enlighten me.
A: This topic is one on which I often get questions. It seemed a good one to follow up last month’s question, where a church member was considering withholding his offering because he was unhappy with one small piece of the UMC’s mission and witness. His intent was to put his gift to another project that was more to his liking.
Questions like this one are often related to people who want to give to a special project, or more precisely to shift their giving away from the church’s budget and program (the concern of the person who wrote me) to a program more in alignment with their passions and interest.
So, let’s state the cautions first: accepting a gift that is designated for a specific purpose and then not using it for that purpose can get your congregation and financial leaders in trouble. The first question you want to ask before you accept: “Is this something that the church would be spending funds on anyway at some point?” Let’s look at a couple of examples:
- Doris puts a check in the offering designated for choir robes, but your choir stopped wearing robes years ago, and the choir has no plans to start wearing robes again. Someone needs to talk to Doris to see if she would be willing to designate her gift more broadly for choir expenses, so it could be used for the purchase of music or other needs. It is a advisable that the church get something in writing from Doris that indicates she approves of this broader designation.
- Fred is your church’s lay member to annual conference, where he saw that your church did not pay its full mission share (apportionment) in the previous year. Fred begins marking in the memo of his weekly giving that his gift is to be used for fulfilling this goal for the church. This is also a designation that must be respected if the gift is accepted, but since these items are already in your budget, you may feel comfortable with this designation, because it is an expense that is already part of the church’s plan.
- Joan is a member of the church and the mother of Christine, who has been hired as a part-time worker with you in the church. The church was not able to increase the salary for Christine’s position in the new budget, but Joan wants part of her weekly giving to be used to raise Christine’s salary. Accepting this gift without proposing a budget change and having the church leaders vote on it would be inappropriate. In addition, the IRS could certainly question whether this was in fact not a charitable gift and not deductible for Joan’s taxes.
Receiving designated gifts is not always a bad thing, but as we all know and see in the world around us, money provides power to people to influence direction and decisions. We need to be very cautious about the gifts we accept that have specific designations.
(Note: I wrote an earlier column on a related topic “When Is It OK to Say No?” that you might want to read as well. In it, I mention the importance of having a gift acceptance policy.)
We should be sensitive to what those gifts are saying to us. If people start making gifts to the church for building repairs, those gifts may be telling us that there are some who think the facility is not safe; or they may have the perception we are not being good stewards. If we get gifts marked for HVAC, we might be hearing that people are not comfortable when they are in the building. These gifts may also be sending a more positive message: that our donors see the church as vital, with a future, and leadership as being worthy of investment.
For all these reasons, when people in your congregation make unsolicited gifts to specific projects or goals (or shift their regular giving in this way), it is wise to pause and do some discussion and reflection (as well as some follow up with the donor) to understand what might be the motivation behind the gift.