Have you ever wondered if your congregation’s distribution of financial commitments (annual pledges) is healthy? Because so many lay leaders have asked that question, the UUA stewardship consultants created a chart that illustrates a healthy distribution of financial commitments:

The first 25% of total dollars is coming from the first 10% of the household donors
The second 25% of total dollars is coming from 15% of the donors
The third 25%of total dollars is coming from 35% of the donors
The final 25% of total dollars is coming from the last 40% of household donors

We believe that this distribution is healthy and we recognize that it is not the norm. We encourage congregations to use this distribution as a guide, not as the one and only answer to healthy finances.

Over the years, we have consulted with many congregations in serious financial trouble because they were overly dependent on a few household donors in the first quartile of giving. If 10 percent of household donors contribute the first 25 percent of total giving, a congregations is not too vulnerable if a top donor moves away, reallocates their financial commitments to other causes, or dies without having left a bequest to the congregation. On the other hand, if only 5 percent of household donors contribute the first 25 percent of total giving, a congregation will have a serious financial problem if a top donor ceases to contribute financial commitments.

Our ideal distribution is analogous to the recently revised Suggested Fair Share Giving Guide. The old guide began with a suggested commitment of 1 percent for people with limited income. The guide peaked at 4.5 percent for those with a high income. If we want to make a difference in our world, if we want to spread the good word of our liberal religion, we must realize that annual commitments ranging from 1 percent to 4.5 percent of adjusted gross income will simply not be enough. The new guide begins at 2 percent and peaks at 10 percent. For those congregants whose current financial commitment is less than 2 percent, we ask them to consider moving onto the guide. For those already on the guide, we suggest that they move one column to the right. We are advocating equal financial sacrifice, not equal giving. We are advocating steady growth in financial commitments, not that everyone must become 10 percent tithers.

But when we analyze a congregation’s financial health, distribution of financial commitments is not the only criteria. We also review the average and median of annual financial commitments. Currently, we believe that an average commitment of $1,500 and a median of $1,200 per household donor is healthy. Of course local demographics must also be considered. We consult with many congregations whose average and median is considerably higher.

In addition to the distribution of commitments and the average and median, we also analyze the funding sources. Healthy congregations often get around 80 percent of their annual income from financial commitments. These congregations spend very little money, if any at all, from their endowment to balance the annual operating budget. These congregations often conduct fundraisers to raise money for external ministries (support for their partner church, contributions to a disaster relief fund for example). These congregations understand that using fundraisers to balance the budget is often an agonizing and inefficient way to meet operating expenses.

How to Determine Your Financial Commitments

To create a quartile analysis, arrange all of the commitments in descending order, from largest to smallest.  Divide the total commitments into four equal parts. Refer to the chart below for the following example. If the total commitments are $250,000, there will be four equal quartiles of $62,500 each. Let’s assume that there are 200 total donor households (pledge units). To determine the first quartile of giving, add the largest commitment to the next largest and continue until you reach 25 percent of the total commitments ($62,500 in this example).  Continue down the list of commitments until the total reaches 50 percent ($125,000) to determine the second quartile of giving.  Follow the same procedure to determine the third and fourth quartiles of giving.

This example represents a relatively healthy distribution of financial commitments because the financial burden is shared fairly well among all of the donors. It is quite likely that many donors in this congregation are making an equal sacrifice, and contributing their fair share.  The average commitment from donors in each quartile looks like this:

1st quartile average commitment                $62,500 ÷ 20 = $3,125
2nd quartile average commitment               $62,500 ÷ 30 = $2,083
3rd quartile average commitment                $62,500 ÷ 70 =    $893
4thquartile average commitment                $62,500 ÷ 80 =    $781

Unhealthy Distribution

Let’s take a second congregation. As with the first congregation, they have 200 donor households and total financial commitments of $250,000. But their distribution of commitments is quite different. They have only 10 households (5% of the total) contributing the first 25 percent of the money; only 20 donors in the second quartile; 40 donors in the third quartile; and a whopping 130 households in the fourth quartile. Here’s a chart that represents their quartile analysis:

It is easy to see that the weight of financial support falls disproportionately on the very few largest donors. This congregation is vulnerable to financial problems if just one or two of the first quartile donors decide to commit their money to another organization, move away, or die. Notice that the average commitment in the first quartile is $6,250, as opposed to $3,125 in the first example.

1st quartile average commitment                $62,500 ÷ 10 = $6,250
2nd quartile average commitment               $62,500 ÷ 20 = $3,125
3rd quartile average commitment                $62,500 ÷ 40 =$1,563
4th quartile average commitment                $62,500 ÷130 = $481

But What to Do?

By analyzing the distribution of financial commitments, lay leaders can determine where to place emphasis during the next annual budget drive. Leaders of the second congregation might want to insure that the 60 donors in the second and third quartile have in-person, individual stewardship conversations with a visiting steward (canvasser). The goal would be to encourage those 60 donors to consider increasing their financial commitment to create a healthier distribution.

Or the leaders might look at the specific names of donors in each quartile. Maybe they determine that a lot of choir members are in the second quartile of giving. In this case, the leaders might want to insure that all choir members have a stewardship conversation. The goal would be to encourage those donors to consider increasing their commitment to create a healthier distribution.

Or the leaders might want to encourage stewardship conversations with those 130 donors in the fourth quartile. These conversations might help to bring these donors closer to the mainstream of congregational life, but it is not likely that there will be many significantly large financial commitments from these donors. We have also found that larger congregations have more donors in this fourth quartile. There is more anonymity in larger congregations and more congregants are consumers of Sunday worship services in larger congregations.

About the Author
Wayne Clark


  1. Tom

    The math here doesn’t add up. The “fair share” formula asks for a considerably higher contribution from the richer members of the congregation. It doesn’t make sense to ask for that and then complain that the rich are making an excess contribution to the budget. The report suggests that in a “healthy” congregation the top quartile should on average contribute $3,125 per year and the bottom quartile contribute $781. Looking at the “fair share” tables that means that the top quartile is making about $80,000 and the bottom quartile about $40,000. That may be a desirable world but it is neither the United States nor the UU membership.

    What is weird is that the authors of this article don’t even seem to be aware of the issue. That is, it may be beneficial to not focus on hitting on the rich. But that is not historical or even present UU policy. The reality is that if we stopped hitting on the rich, we would have a lot less money.

  2. Susan Smith, SWUUC DE

    This will be a very helpful article. I wanted to address Tom’s concerns. It’s always important to remember that there is no correlation between the most generous givers and those with the highest income levels. Given the range of suggested percentages in the new and old charts (1-10%), our $80,000 household could be giving that $800 pledge ($67 a month) at 1% while our $40,000 household may be giving $4,000 ($333 a month) at 10%. The first monthly pledge is about 1/2 of my cable/internet bill, and I would call the second scenario a car payment. In fundraising, we will find the largest potential to increase pledges/giving among those who have pledged at a “casual” level and may be moved to a “thoughtful” level by a compelling vision. The first level of giving is not given much thought, but the second occurs when the commitment to the institution has intensified to a level that is best expressed by a donation that calls for both serious discernment and monthly sacrifice.

  3. Wayne Clark

    Thank’s for your post, Susan. Tom and I have had a telephone conversation to clarify a misunderstanding.

  4. Tim

    The Unhealthy Distribution table should show the percentage of the congregation contributing to each quartile as 5, 10, 20 and 65 percent, rather than repeat the Healthy table. The number of households in the 4th quartile also needs correction to 130.

    I think your analysis is correct, as we share a deeper commitment throughout our congregations, the financial support becomes increasingly broad based and is less reliant on a small group of top donors for support.

  5. laura

    Tank you – I think this is good way to looking at the congregational giving.

    I’m also thinking of using this to talk to healthy distribution of time/talent.
    1) Reality check – Are there a few people doing everything and many doing little? Maybe it time to ask folks to help.
    2) There is a realationship between where people give their time/talent and where they give their treasure. Having a healthy congregation requires both.

  6. Sarah Boyd

    Will you make the corrections in table 2 and repost? Also, does anyone have a “vision” for stewardship to share?

    Thanks, Sarah

  7. Peter Lippitt

    The math on the box showing the “Unhealthy Distribution” is flawed.
    The number of households in the last quartile should be 130, not 100
    and all the percentages in parenthesis should be recalculated
    (they were copied from the “Healthy” box).

  8. Robin Nelson

    To our readers,

    In an version of this blog (as pointed out by several readers), there was an error in the data for the “Unhealthy Distribution” of annual financial commitments. Thanks to Sarah and Tim for pointing out the error. The corrected version of Chart 2 has been corrected in the post.


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