What cash-register evangelism is doing for the churches
Amid both praise and charges of "unchurchlike tactics,” the professional fund raisers of the Wells Organizations have helped pump sixty million dollars into Canadian churches. Here’s how charity works in a grey-flannel suit
Until early this year St. Patrick’s Anglican Church in Guelph, Ont., was struggling along on a meager budget eked out by grants from the diocese. There were no pews in St. Patrick's; worshipers sat on folding chairs. There was no parish hall; the chairs were stacked in a corner and a curtain was drawn across the chancel when church groups met. The church's ancient warm-air furnace made attendance a real test of faith during the winter months. As one member puts it, "You had to be a Christian martyr to attend St. Pat's and like it. We always had good hard-working pastors but we never seemed to be able to get out of the rut.”
But during the past few months all that has become an unhappy memory. The congregation has boosted its annual gross budget from three thousand dollars to thirteen thousand, without a dime coming from beyond the parish boundaries. The folding chairs are now in the basement, which has been redecorated to serve as a parish hall. The church itself has been redecorated. New pews are in place and the front exterior is being rebuilt. An oil-heating and air-conditioning plant has been installed. The rector. Rev. VV. O. Straw, expects to be told by his bishop any time now that St. Patrick’s has been raised from mission to selfsupporting status.
Similar transformations are being recorded in other parts of Canada. For instance, less than two years ago Rev. Father R. J. Monahan was given a new fifteen-square-mile parish in suburban Toronto’s Scarborough district. The parish was so new that it didn’t have a church. All it had was a name, St. Boniface, and a scattered congregation that met for services in private homes. A slight improvement came late in 1955 when a public-school auditorium was obtained, but the prospect of a church of their own seemed far away. Then, last February, something happened. Within a month Father Monahan’s parishioners had put up pledges totaling more than a hundred thousand dollars. Today the people of St. Boniface Roman C'atholic parish are worshiping in a new church.
When the Anglicans of the Winnipeg district opened a canvass for funds to meet new building requirements they set a goal of three hundred thousand dollars. When the canvass ended seven hundred thousand dollars had been pledged.
Such experiences are becoming commonplace for Canadian churches, not because of a spontaneous combustion of Christian zeal, but by the cash-register evangelism of a group of professional church fund raisers called the Wells Organizations. Since 1954 more than six hundred and fifty congregations of every major denomination from Labrador to Vancouver Island have pledged — through Wells' efforts—sixty million dollars to be given in three(or two-) year periods. The results from early canvasses show that the pledges are kept ninety percent of tne time.
The non-religious organization that quietly strolls the ecclesiastical vineyards, plucking ten dollars where only one grew before, operates in Canada from a Toronto head office, and branches in Halifax, Montreal, Hamilton, London, Sault Ste. Marie, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver. It is managed by Jim Johnston, a tall, dark, affable, former public accountant. The parent American organization, in Chicago, which has now branched out beyond Canada to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and England, is headed by Lewis G. Wells, a chunky, greying, quietly dressed man who still prefixes his name with the rank colonel (which he held when demobilized from the U. S. Army at the end of World War II) and who talks tirelessly in a faintly husky voice of the blessings of sacrificial church giving. Wells' prewar experience in fund raising was learned from his father who had been directing a large hospital fund-raising organization in the U. S. for years. When the son decided to start his own business he mixed hospitals and churches; but when a few hospital campaigns failed (including one at Orangeville, Ont., three years ago) and church canvasses showed promise, the Wells Organizations abandoned all other fields but that of church finances.
The financial transfusions given by Wells canvasses in Canada have resulted in more than five hundred new churches, Sunday-school buildings, parish halls and parsonages, in more support for missions, in torn-up mortgages, and happy smiles. They have also brought disappointment and dissension.
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What cash-register evangelism is doing for the churches
The people of Lakeburn United Church, in Moncton, N.B., and the Wells Organizations parted company after a fund-raising drive did not bring in the money pledged. Wells says it offered to make a return canvass but that the offer was not accepted by a new minister who had taken over the Lakeburn pulpit after the Wells canvass had been made. The organization, claiming it was not allowed to deal directly with the laymen of the congregation on the question of a second canvass, made no rebate, and the congregation settled down to pay off a bank debt of more than nineteen hundred dollars that it had borrowed to pay the Wells Organizations’ fee and canvass expenses.
A Wells canvass resulted in a congregational split at Downsview United Church, in northwest Toronto. Sydney Steele, the church’s recording steward, says. “Many of the congregation were rubbed the wrong way. Quite a few refused to help with the canvass. Instead of getting us all pepped up, we cooled.” The canvass was halted, under clouds of hostility. However, when the air had cleared again, a repeat canvass was made, this time under the direction of a different Wells representative, and the sixtythousand-dollar goal was reached.
Whenever trouble ensues from a Wells Organizations canvass, details and specific causes are difficult to unearth in either camp. Beyond “pressure” and “unchurchlike tactics,” Sydney Steele will not particularize. The Wells people call it “an incomplete canvass” and stop there, ln Quesnel, B.C., two churches engaged Wells. They fell short of their objectives, dissension developed, and both terminated the campaigns with demands for a refund of their four-thousand-dollar fees. The refunds were granted. And yet, while this unpleasantness was going on, St. Andrew’s United Church in Sudbury, Ont., launched a campaign to raise two hundred and fifty-one thousand dollars during a three-year period. That amount had been pledged just three days after the canvass was started. Two weeks later pledges had topped four hundred thousand dollars, and the weekly collections show that the congregation is standing up to its pledges. The people of St. Andrew’s now can not only increase their own budget and capital spending, but are making gifts averaging twenty-five thousand dollars to smaller mission churches in the Sudbury area.
H. B. Wood, chairman for the St. Andrew's canvass, says, “The fellowship created among our committees and canvassers will have a long and lasting effect. Wells has taught us something we could never have learned otherwise.”
While the Wells Organizations acknowledges that dissensions do sometimes crop up, it claims that they are rarities, and that more than ninety-four percent of the organization’s campaigns are successful.
Perhaps some of the success it claims is due to its expertness in employing the right word at the right time. Lewis Wells, for instance, never speaks of giving without using one or two adjectives. There is “sacrificial” giving (good) and “token" giving (one shudders). Sacrificial giving. Wells maintains, strengthens the giver spiritually: "He is a more valuable member of his church than the token giver, apart from the monetary aspect. The good giver always votes progressively in church matters; the token giver votes ‘no.’ ” Wells is irked by the practice in most churches of seemingly cloaking the taking of the collection with hymn singing. solos or other diversions. He will sometimes rebuke a minister for this. “Giving is, or should be, an act of worship in itself,” he says. "It is just as devotional as singing a psalm or offering a prayer. How can anyone perform two acts of worship at the same time? Why do so many pastors think that the offering has to be got through with the help of some distracting exercise?”
Wells is president of all Wells Organizations, in all countries where they are located. Apart from that connection, the Canadian organization is completely Canadian. There are no Americans among Melis' personnel in this country. Manager Jim Johnston's key men. apart from department heads, are the thirty-four directors who organize and guide the actual canvasses. They are chosen for tact, business sense and a capacity for hard work. Among the directors are matriculants and BAs. Their previous occupations are diverse. One is a former farmer, another a former executive with an oil company. The only religious touch in the Toronto head office is provided by a couple of reproductions of the popular Sallman painting of Christ. If there is an atmosphere of devotion about the place it is devotion to duty—Wells duty. All Wells employees are church members, but their religious lives and church-giving habits are their own individual business as far as the Wells management is concerned.
When one of the senior directors was recently asked how much he gave to his own church, he replied, heatedly, but not too specifically: "We are urging
others to give to their churches, and give to the limit. We could not do that for long without satisfying ourselves that we were in a moral position to do so." Most of the men are smokers and some will let slip a cuss word at times. "This is a business run by businessmen along business lines, and we don’t try to pretend that it is anything else." Johnston says. He adds, "But we look upon it as being a business with a mission.”
The Wells technique for church fund raising, called "the Wells way" in the organization, has been described by some of the organization's critics as “merely a copy of money-raising methods used by the churches during the past hundred years—pepping up a canvassing corps, the church dinner to launch the campaign. and the canvassers’ visits to the people's homes to collect the pledges.” That is partly true. But it is like saying that travel between Winnipeg and Brandon has not changed in a hundred years because you still go on four wheels in a westerly direction. The Wells people stand by the adjuration. “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” but have introduced some flourishes and psychological jolts just to make sure everyone shall be thoroughly blessed.
Their methods were effectively demonstrated in a canvass conducted eighteen months ago in the Collier Street United Church in Barrie. Ont., an average county town of seventeen thousand people with several small industries that provide an even flow of prosperity. The Collier Street congregation is the fourth generation of worshipers to attend the redbrick church on the fringe of the town's business area. It is what is called an active congregation, numbering six hundred families. The minister. Rev. S. E. Lewis, htis been in the Collier Street pulpit for seventeen years, practically all his ministerial life. He is still a young man. slim, mustached and quiet-spoken. He and Mrs. Lewis have two children, the older one preparing for university.
The church needed at least one hundred thousand dollars for a new Sundayschool building. The one in use had been built fifty years ago to hold a hundred children; now. five hundred children were trying to find room in it every Sunday. "That meant a long period of heavy indebtedness — or the Wells people,” Lewis explains, “so I called Wells.”
The answer to Lewis’ call was a spare but impeccable executive named Howard Allen, a former managing director of a Montreal firm of sales-management consultants. He joined the Wells Organizations as a canvass director late in 1953. Allen met with the minister and stewards. He asked for the membership roll, complete with donation records and members’ occupations. This was produced. (Such a request has only been refused once. A Montreal church would not open its records to the Wells representative and, perhaps as a result, the canvass objective was not reached.) Allen studied the records and agreed that the canvass objective should be a hundred thousand dollars. The organization’s fee would be fifty-two hundred and twenty-five dollars. (If an objective isn’t achieved after a canvass the Wells Organizations will make a second canvass at no extra charge. If, however, the church does not want a return canvass, the organization will return its fee. To date, says Johnston, thirty-seven repeat canvasses have been requested and only four churches, declining a second drive, have asked for their money back.)
The Wells fee need not be paid all at once, but it must be paid in full by the time the canvass is completed—in about four weeks. Fees are not determined on a straight percentage basis. The estimated length of time of a canvass is considered,, the probable expenses of the organization and other factors. But fees usually work out to about five percent of the objective on large canvasses, and as high as ten percent on small ones.
When the fee had been accepted at Barrie, Allen then explained that other canvass costs—involving a booklet, a dinner and stenographic fees — to be borne by the church could be expected to reach twenty-five hundred dollars. The actual canvass began when Allen and C. L. Chittick. a leading lay member of the church, sat down together. It wasn’t a lengthy session. Chittick. a retired ear dealer and a veteran church worker, was told that by being the first to pledge he was setting the example that might mean success or failure for the entire canvass. Chittick had been an average giver. His yearly donations ran around a hundred and twenty dollars; but now. under Allen's persuasion, he offered to pledge a thousand. The pledge was accepted and Chittick then called on his minister to obtain the minister’s pledge.
There are few pastors in North America who arc not yet aware of the general technique used by Wells, so Lewis was prepared. He told Chittick that he himself was pledging a thousand dollars over a three-year period. Six dollars a week was quite a chunk out of a thirtythrec-hundred-dollar salary. But Wells persuades most ministers to do as much. In fact, some have to be sat on. One minister tried to pledge twenty-five hundred out of a thirty-five-hundred-dollar salary. The Wells director and the minister’s lay helpers had quite a time quenching his fervor and getting his pledge down to a reasonable figure.
Other ministers balk at the idea of giving what frequently amounts to a tithe of their salary. When this happens the director feels he must be firm. J'he organization has gone so far as to abandon a canvass before it started because the minister refused to pledge the minimum amount thought necessary by the director. The psychological factor is easily understood. When a layman gives, no one can be sure that it hurts. A generous pledge by a minister or priest is recognized by his congregation as being genuinely sacrificial. It inspires, or shames, them into following suit.
$5,000 wasn’t nearly enough
"When Mr. Lewis told me he would pledge a thousand. 1 was jarred, to put it mildly,” Chittick confesses. "I knew what a sacrifice it meant. I have no income these days so anything like this comes from savings, but I sharpened my pencil and decided to increase my pledge to twelve hundred.”
This initial lay pledge always has to be a good one. The Wells Organizations never willingly allows a donor to get away with what looks to others like a large pledge. It has to look large to him, too. During a Toronto canvass a director handed Johnston a cheque for five thousand dollars that had been offered by a man well able to afford more. "What do we do with it?” the director asked. "Tell him we tore it up,” Johnston replied. tearing it up. Two days later th : man himself appeared at the Wells offices with a cheque for eighteen thousand dollars, and apologies. Refusing the five thousand was not done in sheer bravado: if the man had not repented and increased his pledge the canvass would probably have been a failure anyway.
When the No. I lay pledge and that of the minister at Barrie's Collier Street United had been obtained, Chittick canvassed other congregation members of the upper financial brackets. He was prepared to announce his own pledge to each before asking for their pledges. It is Wells psychology for a canvasser to reveal his own pledge to a prospect in his own financial bracket, before asking the amount of the prospect's pledge. It usually results in a hasty revision upward in the mind of the prospect. In this case it wasn't necessary. All but one of Chittick’s prospects were ready with pledges that he knew were about the best they could do. "And.” Chittick recalls, “the holdout increased his amount before anybody twisted his arm.” In two days Chittick collected seventeen thousand dollars from nine people.
As the initial pledges were received, the pledgers were assigned to chairmanships of various canvassing committees and they, in turn, canvassed their committeemen. Neil MacDonald, secretary-treasurer of a tanning mill, who had been giving a hundred and twenty-five dollars a year to the church, increased his donation by five hundred dollars a year. “I think our pastor Mr. Lewis’ pledge did more than anything to spark the whole campaign,” MacDonald declares.
Seven leaders of the canvass made their pledges while sitting around a table. Others canvassed each other by phone, or in brief calls at offices or homes. Within ten days of the time Allen had arrived in town, almost thirty thousand dollars had been pledged; and the general canvass was still to come.
Allen remained a shadowy figure in the background. He made no direct canvass, except for the initial pledging of Chittick. His job was to counsel the canvassers, help with the selection of committee members and unobtrusively direct their tasks. Ninety percent of the congregation would not have recognized Allen if they had passed him on the street.
Meanwhile, a publicity committee was preparing a sixteen-page booklet giving the history of Collier Street United Church and the reason for the campaign. Here, the Wells touch was again apparent. It couldn’t be an ordinary mimeographed job, run off in the church secretary’s office. It was printed, on coated stock, and well illustrated with copper halftones. The booklets cost thirty-five cents each and were mailed free to six hundred families. Allen did the final editing and saw to it that the story of Collier Street United Church was presented in an intimate and chatty manner, yet in a way that would arouse pride in the reader.
When members received the elaborately produced booklet they felt that this was to be no ordinary canvass. When the next Wells broadside was fired at them—the church dinner—they were sure of it. When things are done the Wells way a church dinner is called a Loyally Dinner, in capital letters, and it is nothing like the traditional basement beano of cold ham, scalloped potatoes and coffee poured from enamel pitchers into shaving mugs.
A hostess committee had been formed and each member was given a list of ten guests whom she was to invite personally to the Loyalty Dinner. This method ensures a larger attendance than a general invitation, casually announced from the pulpit. More than five hundred members of the Collier United Church turned up for the Loyalty Dinner, which was free, and held in the Armoury. The meal was prepared by a Toronto caterer, rushed in insulated containers sixty miles to Barrie, and followed by a busload of thirty waitresses and dish washers, just so the women of the congregation would not have to work. The menu was fruit cup. stuffed pork tenderloin, creamed potatoes, mixed vegetables, deep apple pie with ice cream and coffee in bone-china cups brought by the caterer. The bill amounted to sixteen hundred dollars.
Lite congregational dinner is an old weapon in church fund-raising campaigns, but in the Wells armory it has been reforged, sharpened and brightened. The Wells Organizations insists that the dinner be provided by an outside firm, preferably a caterer, so that the entire congregation may sit down at once in carefree unity. The meal must be good and well planned. Ceremonies mustn't drag. It is here that the congregation gets its first news of the large initial pledges. The full force of their exemplary value must be absorbed in an atmosphere of geniality and church loyalty.
Some churches find these rules difficult to follow. The Wells director of a canvass at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Grand Falls. NtkL, wired Johnston that there could be no Loyalty Dinner because there were no readily available facilities. Johnston shot back a Churchillian order: “The Loyalty Dinner must be held. See to it.” It was seen to—with an armory standing in for a church hall and women’s organizations from several neighboring churches pinchhitting as caterers.
At the Barrie Loyalty Dinner the committee was able to go by the book.
Half a dozen canvass chairmen spoke, but none for more than five minutes. Neil MacDonald's talk was typical. He repeated the immediate need for larger Sunday-school accommodation and added: "Our forefathers built this church
and made many sacrifices to do so. Since then we have merely used it. Now we are challenged by the needs of the children to make a sacrifice. It isn’t a task, it’s a privilege. And if we make a sacrificial pledge—not just a token pledge— our inner satisfaction for having met the challenge will be all the greater.”
As an indication of what he meant, the initial pledgers were introduced and their pledges, totalling nearly thirty thousand dollars, announced. Almost a third of the total objective—from just a handful of men—and before the canvass had really got under way! Everyone looked thoughtful. Rev. S. E. Lewis offered a short prayer and they were all home by nine o'clock.
The general canvass began next evening under sixty canvassers, one for each ten families. Each canvasser's prospects were on his own income level. Each canvasser had made his pledge and would tell his prospects what it was.
Charlie Gibson, an automobile dealer’s accountant, was a general canvasser who had pledged two hundred and twenty-five dollars. His previous giving was $32.50 a year. His six prospects had been giving from eight dollars to twenty dollars a year. On each prospect’s card was the amount he was expected to pledge—as a guide for the canvasser. These estimates ranged from fifty to seventy-five dollars a year.
Of the six people Gibson called on. two pledged an amount expected of them, two were about twenty percent below the figure and two refused to pledge at all. Of the two, one, he felt, had a sufficient excuse. The other one was written off after all pleas had failed; but all six signed their pledge cards to show that he had called.
Gibson's returns were average for the general canvass. Less than a month after the Wells director had got from Chittick the initial pledge of the Collier Street United congregation, the hundred-thousand-dollar objective had been surpassed by twenty-seven thousand dollars. “The example of early pledgers—the minister’s and those at the Loyalty Dinner—was what made the canvass go,” Gibson declares.
This exemplary pledge draws most of the critical fire aimed at the Wells Organizations. Gordon Coburn, chairman of the Christian stewardship committee of the Canadian Council of Churches, says, “I feel strongly there are dangers from a commercially motivated method of church fund raising. Emulation is a very dubious motive for Christians, and it is indispensable from the Wells technique. The Wells Organizations says it is essential, but from the Christian viewpoint we are not paced by men.”
Rev. Canon H. R. Hunt, general secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada, believes that the Wells Organizations, “supported by intensive research and the judicious use of applied psychology,” gives good service for the fees charged. “While certain of the methods used are open to critical examination, and are unacceptable to some people,” he continues, “those who have engaged the Wells Organizations have generally expressed warm appreciation of the service and the results. As one clergyman in a northern Ontario town remarked to me, ‘We needed a bombshell in our community. Wells Organizations gave us what we needed.’ ”
Rev. Dr. A. N. Miller, secretary of the stewardship and budget committee of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, says the Wells Organizations’ results so far are “like anything else, good and bad, financially and otherwise. They have raised a good deal of money but their claim of ninety percent success is, 1 feel sure, a generous estimate.” Miller thinks there is a latent ethical danger in the practice of having a minister make a pledge: “I know of a case where a minister told a Wells director that he couldn’t possibly make a pledge of seven hundred and fifty dollars asked of him. After some argument the director went to the elders of the church and told them it was up to them to raise the minister’s stipend so the canvass could get started." Such methods, Miller says, can make a sham of the minister’s announced pledge and leave him guilty of false pretences.
No Wells canvass is undertaken without some or all of these objections being sounded by churchmen. When the (Anglican) Church of St. Philip the Apostle, in Toronto, decided on a Wells canvass a man who had been a tireless worker in the parish for years walked out of the meeting with the words: “Christian charity is a private affair.” However, the canvass was made, and the church became better off by eighty-six thousand dollars. When it had conducted its own canvass a few years earlier, thirty thousand dollars was all it could raise.
While the canvass at Collier Street United Church, in Barrie, was under way a close watch on its progress was kept by St. John’s United Church, in Elmvale. twenty miles away. St. John’s needed more Sunday-school accommodation too. and was thinking about a Wells canvass. But though impressed with the Barrie drive, St. John’s leaders thought the Wells fee was too high, and they decided to go it alone. The church launched a campaign, using the power of example in reverse. Mufflers were put on big-money talk, but the gifts of an oldage pensioner who pledged seventy-five cents a week or a stenographer willing to give two dollars a week were announced at the Loyalty Dinner. (St. John’s borrowed the name from Wells, and had the catering done by the women of a neighboring church.)
Does giving become a habit?
At the end of a six-week canvass, St. John’s one-hundred-and-fifty-five-family congregation had pledged fifty-five thousand dollars for three years. Told of their achievement, Jim Johnston smiled and said, “More power to St. John’s, of Elmvale—but they would have done better if they had used us.”
When people are told of the large amounts raised by a Wells canvass they often ask, “What happens when the three-year or two-year period is up? How many of the pledgers maintain their high level of giving, and how many taper off?" In Canada it is still too early to say. Most campaigns are for three years, and that is as long as the Canadian organization has been operating. But if American performances are a criterion, giving habits established by a Wells canvass seldom fall below seventy-five percent of the original pledged offerings. Many churches start in on another canvass as soon as the first has run its course. This has already been done in Canada. St. George’s Church, in Winnipeg, and Northminster United, in Oshawa, Ont., have had second canvasses and in each case more was pledged than during the first one.
The proand anti-Wells factions in Canadian churches make liberal use of Scriptural quotations. “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men to be seen of them,” cry the antis; "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” say the pros. “Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth,” is answered with, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
Perhaps the secret of Wells’ success is in another familiar saying, not found in the Bible at all—“money talks.” ★