Transforming Fundraising: Understanding Stewardship in Nonprofit Fund Development

“I learned from my first management experience that people will do what you tell them to do if you lay out a clear plan and help them get there.” -Larry O’Nan

[00:00:00] Larry O’Nan: We could have failed miserably, Tommy, but that was okay. I learned a long time ago, and even in the book that I’ve written, I did a foreword about the freedom to fail. And I was afraid to step out and do things, and I had a guy that I was working with, and he said, Larry, freedom to fail is what you’ve got.

[00:00:19] Larry O’Nan: No one’s ever done it before. Go ahead and step into it. All you can do is go back and do it again. If it doesn’t work, then try something else. And freedom to fail never became a barrier to me. If this is not the way to do it, we’ll figure it out later and tweak it and do it again.


[00:00:34] Tommy Thomas: My guest today is Larry O’Nan, and Larry is a graduate of the University of Colorado. He and his wife, Pat, served on the staff of Cru, previously known as Campus Crusade for Christ, for 18 years.

And during this time, Larry dedicated 13 years to developing and overseeing the accelerated growth of many fund development initiatives, resulting in more than 150 million raised for evangelism and development programs worldwide. I first met Larry in July of 1973. I had joined the staff of Campus Crusade and had been assigned to report to Larry.

It’s an immense pleasure to get to interview my first boss.

Larry, Welcome to NextGen Nonprofit Leadership.

[00:01:20] Larry O’Nan: Tommy, it’s so good to be with you. Thanks a lot for inviting me to dialogue with you a little bit today about all kinds of things. We’ve got a long history.

[00:01:28] Tommy Thomas: We could go in a lot of directions. We could do a whole podcast on reminiscing about memories, but there was one that stuck in my mind. And I don’t know if you remember or not.  It was the summer of ‘74 and Larry and I had traveled to Korea to attend this big conference, Expo 74, with a million and a half of our good friends.

And after the conference, we traveled around Southeast Asia, but the leg of the trip that I remember was with the Philippines. And it was so hot, and it was so humid, I was raised in the south and I thought I knew what heat and humidity was, but they put a whole new definition on it over there.

I remember we shared a bedroom that had two single beds and one oscillating fan. I can remember lying in my bed and that fan would hit me and then it would go away and it’d go over, swing over to Larry’s side of the room, and hit him. And it’d go back and forth. And I thought, a lot of significant learning took place on that trip, but the heat and the humidity and that oscillating fan stick out in my memory, Larry.

[00:02:34] Larry O’Nan: Oh, my goodness. And I was in the Philippines about two years ago. I chair a board of a nonprofit in the Philippines called Little Feet and Friends, and I was sharing a room with a Filipino pastor that was with me. And I was laying there thinking at least the last time I was here, it wasn’t oscillating. I was actually in the only air-conditioned room on that entire compound.

[00:03:00] Tommy Thomas:  Yeah, they get used to that heat over there. It’s amazing. It is amazing. Before we dig too deep into your career and the books you’ve written and that kind of thing, I want to go back to your maybe to your childhood a little bit. Growing up in Colorado, what are two or three things that you remember most about your childhood?

[00:03:18] Larry O’Nan: My father was a pastor in Western Colorado at the time. And Tommy, the things that stuck with my head the most was learning to do something from nothing. Dad was encouraging. I had a horse that was 36 inches tall, a Grand Canyon pony horse. And I learned to make money with that little rascal.

He about killed me on a race, but I decided that I could take him to the richer part of my town. And for a quarter, I could get a kid to ride on the back of the horse and I could make more money in three hours as a 10- or 12-year-old than I could if I was doing anything else. So, learning to do something from nothing, taking an idea and creating something from it.

And believe it or not, over and over again in my life, I’ve seen that same pattern kick into gear many times. Because too many times I was told to go do it, but there’s no plan.

[00:04:09] Tommy Thomas:   What was high school like in Western Colorado?

[00:04:13] Larry O’Nan: Western Colorado is a unique area in that we were the major town between Denver and Salt Lake.

And it was a rural community, but it was also a cosmopolitan mixing area. It was the largest city, and it was there that I got involved in theater a great deal. I knew I was going to become famous in the theater world for five years. Even into my junior year in college, I knew that’s where I was aiming.

I began not only liking the acting, but I really got into the directing and the back of the scene, what goes on behind to make a show work. Again, it was taking something from almost nothing and creating in six weeks, a full production of South Pacific or you name the shows that we did. We did a lot of major shows.

[00:04:59] Larry O’Nan: And over again, when I was in high school, I started seeing that there was a need for some people to come in and do the backside of the curtain to make the front of the curtain actually work. And so I’ve enjoyed the backside of the curtain all my life and standing back in the back of a room, watching it happen when it goes off.

So that was my high school days. From there, I went to university. And majored in theater up to my junior year in college when I decided I wanted to get out of that field and ended up with a double major in English education and was supposed to become a drama coach and a debate coach and an English teacher.

And I never went that way. I went into full time ministry.

[00:05:43] Tommy Thomas: What are people always surprised to find out about you?

[00:05:47] Larry O’Nan: Oh, my goodness. What were they surprised to find out about me? Probably that I think it was a surprise to even me too, is that when I would make a commitment to do something, I later discovered I have a high degree of responsibility in my whole system, but I cannot give up on things.

When I say I’m going to do something, I do it, and that’s probably surprised me as much as it did them. But it would also bother me when things happen when people would not follow through. Because to me, everybody should have that same value. I discover people are different, but in defining what my strengths were, I really discovered one of those was maximizing the occasion, but the other one was a driving force to be responsible, to get it done.

Even today. I’ve got to say no, because if I say yes, I’m caught with a responsibility to carry through and do something.

[00:06:41] Tommy Thomas: What do you remember about the first time you had people reporting to you as a manager?

[00:06:48] Larry O’Nan: When I was in my second year at the University of Pennsylvania, working with Campus Crusade in the Ivy League area, I was assigned a responsibility to have a music group come through the area. And they gave me 30 days of time with that group. And I decided if I was going to have them for 30 days and they were going to charge me by the day, I was going to get my money out of them.

And I about killed the group because I started organizing people on every campus in five states to get ready for this group to come to town. And we did, I think 32 concerts in 30 days. They never told me not to do it. They just told me to schedule the group and I overscheduled them. But I had good teams on all these campuses, both Ivy League and state campuses and Christian colleges that were in that area.

[00:07:38] Larry O’Nan: And I learned from that experience that people will do what you tell them to do if you lay out a clear plan and help them get there. So, to me, it’s not about me getting the credit, it’s about the people that I recruit to do the job where they own it. And then I can sit back and help them be successful at it.

For years, that’s the way I functioned. Now, later, I got into developing more people when I got into early fund development. There was only two of us who started off with a huge project that no one had any clue what to do about. But within 13 years, I had about 100 people and seven departments working for me.

[00:08:18] Larry O’Nan: And again, it was more of a facilitator role and an encourager role that I saw my leadership to be not a one that went ahead and get it done. So even when I started writing books and doing other things, I developed teams that were working on those things and they had as much ownership on the project that I did, and they felt that ownership, I think, and it carried the whole program.

So, to say I was really leading. Yeah, I was influenced, but I was more by encouraging them to go get the job done and help us get it done together. So that happened.


[00:08:54] Tommy Thomas: So, you were on the campus staff. How did you get over into fundraising?

[00:09:02] Larry O’Nan: I almost tripped over that one. I did two years at the University of Pennsylvania. Then that music group came through. It was called the New Folk at the time.

And when I killed them in 30 days, they asked me that summer, if I would move out of the campus ministry and had started advancing that Eastern United States group that had, I think, 30 states under its wing.

And I started doing the advanced work and setting up all of their concerts for the next couple of years. And that led me into music. Eventually, after a number of years there, I put seven groups together for the Ministry of Crew and both Asia and Africa and Europe, and then a number of groups here in the United States.

[00:09:44] Larry O’Nan: I found myself in 1972 out of a job, and I was asked by the then Senior Vice President of the organization if I would help him with a project and I took a brand-new staff guy into that room to say, what is the project? And he went to his hotel bathroom. He was headquartered in an old facility that had hotel rooms that were converted to offices.

He pulled back the shower curtain. There were 28 boxes of pledge cards. Representing almost 2 million in pledges made by 80,000 students in Dallas, Texas earlier that summer.  It had been 90 days since those boxes had been touched. No one had a clue what was in them and the only responsibilities, could you take these boxes and see if you can convert them into commitments from the people that made these pledges.

[00:10:36] Larry O’Nan: So, 90 days later, those 28 boxes started saying, this is what you call fund development. And I had no clue. No one was, there was no roadmap. There was nobody advising us. We just had to make it successful. And that got me into fund development. And little did I know that those 28 boxes would lead to a career that included 30 years of consulting with Christian nonprofits after that.

It was a journey that I never expected, but it was using all my skill package. So, the way I did that job all those years was just leveraging my strengths and staying away from my weaknesses.

[00:11:18] Tommy Thomas: So, I guess I didn’t think about this back then. So, you were a year into this when I came along.

[00:11:25] Larry O’Nan: I probably was about a year into it.  I think Tommy, you and I were heavily involved in the I Found It campaign, the Here’s Life America campaign that was going on. That was one of those jobs I was assigned. This is before you got there, but it was basically we need to raise 12 to 15 million in the next two years. How are you going to do it?

And again, there was no plan. There was no advice. There was nobody telling us what to do. I was working casually with a consulting firm out of New York, shared with them the challenge that was before me, and he helped me formulate a plan. And we raised about 12 million in 18 months. But it was going from zero.

[00:12:09] Larry O’Nan: And I think you came into play through that process. And we recruited representatives to work across the United States. I think I had about 15 or 18 field reps. And we were training cities how to raise the money to accomplish their city objectives. So again, it was taking something from nothing, creating an idea, formulating a plan, and then working the plan.

And that pattern is, I’ve done that over and over again over my years. So, you and I started when there was nobody telling us what to do. And those days it was a wing and a prayer and Tommy go get on an airplane and go do X. And if we had an hour or two or a day before, we would figure out what to do the next day and we’d go do it.

[00:12:58] Larry O’Nan: We could have failed miserably, Tommy, but that was okay. I learned a long time ago, and even in the book that I’ve written, I did a foreword about the freedom to fail. And I was afraid to step out and do things, and I had a guy that I was working with, and he said, Larry, freedom to fail is what you’ve got.

No one’s ever done it before. Go ahead and step into it. All you can do is go back and do it again. If it doesn’t work, then try something else. And freedom to fail never became a barrier to me. It became “if this is not the way to do it, we’ll figure it out later and tweak it and do it again”. So that’s how it started.

[00:13:35] Larry O’Nan: And I ended up spending 13 years doing the ministry of Cru, and then I consulted with them for another 10 – 12 years beyond that. As one of my clients when I was doing the fund development, because at that time, I was specializing in major partner development, and we were doing a lot of other initiatives, and I worked with them.

Just this last week, I was in Spain and repeated some of the same stuff that we did 45 years ago in Spain again, except not in the context of Cru now. But if what Cru gave birth to is a network of nonprofit Christian organizations, and in this case in Europe. They were jokingly calling me the great grandfather of this activity that I was attending, because I was there and the guys that I trained and equipped and mentored were there, and then the leadership that they had developed through their work were there, and we had about 150 people at that conference.

From 20 countries, sitting in about 15 organizations. It’s fun to watch it work because you can stand in the back of the room and say, my goodness, this really did work.

[00:14:47] Tommy Thomas: Go back to failure for a minute. Why do you think most of us are afraid to fail?

[00:14:54] Larry O’Nan: I think there’s an expectation that failure is bad to begin with.  So, we hear the word failure, and we don’t want to fail. But when you realize that if you don’t have the freedom to fail, you may not take the risks that will take to get the job done.  I’ve seen people have never reached their maximum potential because they’re stumbling about what would happen if it didn’t work?

And I had the same feeling when I first started these things, and nobody was there to walk beside me. And then when I realized that if you don’t do it one way, you just roll up your sleeves and go try another way. Now, I believe that if you learn a pattern and then mess up too much on it, that needs to be corrected.

[00:15:40] Larry O’Nan: But generally, I think most people are afraid to fail. In fact, my concern is that I watched the Z generation. I’ve got a 23-year-old grandson, and there’s a lot of these kids that are really afraid to step out and be bold and do something. They’re almost frozen because they could get whiplash and could really take them down.

And their self-esteem, they don’t want to fail. So, they won’t do anything. They will end up taking no less of a job. They will not take the risks. And that’s the sad part. I feel like we got to help people endorse failure. I looked at the Old Testament. Moses had a huge potential failure when he picked up two million people in Egypt to go across the desert and it took him 40 years to get there.

[00:16:25] Larry O’Nan: But he figured out how to navigate that particular venue with all the problems they had. But I think God gives us the freedom to fail. I don’t think God is up there with a big stick saying, I’m going to give you a lower grade because it didn’t work out right.

I think that the key to good leadership is giving people the freedom to fail. I just think a lot of young adults coming up today are almost frozen and maybe the expectation on them is not fair as well.

[00:16:56] Tommy Thomas: So yeah, failure is tied into risk. What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?

[00:17:05] Larry O’Nan: Probably stepping into some arenas where I knew the potential of it not succeeding was really great, but we had to do it anyway.

I was involved with a dream of Dr. Bill Bright to see a billion dollars raised for the Great Commission and the amount of funding and the way we were going to go about doing it was petrifying. But if you didn’t step out and test some of those ideas out, you never would have known they worked. At that time the only organizations in the U.S. that achieved a billion dollars of income of any kind was probably Harvard and Stanford. And we were in an evangelical nonprofit culture. And the idea of raising money that had never ever been raised before was just a big gulp. And it was a huge risk because the reputation hangs on the risk.

Now, I was not the upfront guy. I was doing much more of the logistics. And making it happen, but it takes those kinds of people behind the scenes. You can have a good guy on the platform, but if he doesn’t know what he’s doing, it’s going to crumble pretty fast.


[00:18:22] Tommy Thomas:   What have you learned about resilience over the years?

[00:18:27] Larry O’Nan: Keep at it. I think there’s a tendency to if it doesn’t work you get out of here. In fact, a few weeks ago, somebody said the frustration that I have with the young generation is that in fact, this was a tax guy. He said for most adults, they come in and they have a W2 form, or they have maybe two jobs, maybe three, if they’re really getting entrepreneurial.

He said the young generation is coming in with 10 or 12 W2 forms because they kept quitting and going to something else. He said they don’t know where they’re going because they don’t stay long enough to figure out even what they’re good at. And I think that is a reflection on our culture. But I’m still committed to trying to help people look at the longer term.

[00:19:14] Larry O’Nan: My grandson just graduated from Biola University, and I said to him a few weeks ago, I said, now, the key thing is to stay at this job for 8, 10 weeks because his tendency is if this doesn’t work, there’s probably something over here that could work. Now he’s not one to jump fast, but much of the culture jumps fast.

So, to be on the job for two weeks and quit because you don’t like the hours, you don’t learn very much that way.

Tommy, when you and I were doing what we were doing together, we were sticking through it for two or three years at a time, slugging up against all kinds of risks and all kinds of barriers.  And I think we had some good times, but we did not know where we were going. God seemed to be getting us there.

[00:20:01] Tommy Thomas: Yeah, I’m thinking back. I don’t ever remember thinking about quitting. It was hard at times. But we did have good times along the way.

We had things to celebrate and for the most part we got there. I think we were a pretty good fundraising group, that group of 15 that you had together. And then the tour we took when I managed that music group, the Crossroads, when we brought them in from Asia and I think back. I don’t think that I’ve thought about quitting, I don’t have any kids or grandkids, so I’m probably not as tied to these next generations as a lot of my guests are. So I’m always interested in what you’re seeing out there and in that context.

[00:20:43] Larry O’Nan: We were doing that Tommy back in those days and I called it fundraising back then. Now I’m a consultant with funded up mode, but fundraising is really an exchange. It’s I get something, and you get something. Unfortunately, that’s what is going on in most of the activities.

My direct mail stuff that I get from all kinds of political and non-political sources is offering me something in exchange for something else. Almost every one of them. If not, they’re trying to lean on my emotion of what’s going to happen to a kid if I don’t send them money. So, it ‘s fundraising.

Now I’m not anti-fundraising. I don’t think it’s sinful. It is manipulated to a great extent because if you use the right words and say the right things, you can bend a person to do something that they may not want to do. With fundraising there is also the concept of the donor. And our secular society has used that term very broadly.

[00:21:45] Larry O’Nan: A donor is a person that gives blood, gets a needle in his arm, resists the fact that he had to do it, but sometimes does it for the higher cause of what the blood will do. And if he gets anything, it’s a sugar cube or a cookie at the end of sitting there giving blood. I always cringed at fundraising and having donors because I felt like there was a higher calling and we were trying to get money.

So even during the times that you were working with him, we were doing good fundraising. Yeah, but we were not yet into Fund Development.

Fund development is the word. Development itself is steps and stages in growth and advancement. That means you have to take a person on a journey for them to see what they can do and what can happen together.

[00:22:35] Larry O’Nan: And then when I really got into the Theology of Stewardship, I dismissed the word fundraising and donor completely from the vocabulary.

We started calling them partners. We started using the word Fund Development, not fundraising.   We started seeing that the people that could give resources were equally involved in ministry, just as much as I was involved in ministry.

[00:22:59] Larry O’Nan: I just had a different ministry. I was helping spend some of their money, and they were giving the money that God had entrusted to them. So, the radical change came in about 1978-79, when as a circumstance, I was assigned to figure out the Theology of Stewardship for Cru. They could say, knowing about Cru’s history they must have had a very solid organization.

It was a wing and a prayer with a visionary behind it. So, the visionary was a post war, and at that time, a handshake was as good as your word. So, the people in the ministry like Cru were doing it and it was relational development. I would say that true, but it really was a, I have no idea what I need next.

[00:23:57] Larry O’Nan: But now if I figure out what I need next, I’ll ask you again. So, there was some core concepts there, but there wasn’t a fund development initiative or a strategy at that time. And I raised my personal support with minimal training and a prayer over me. That was about it. And that’s the way you probably did.

It was not until the late seventies when I was assigned and what had actually happened, Tommy, was I was invited to a meeting. I had been fairly successful with you and other strategies. We were raising funding, and I was invited to a meeting and the people that were in the meeting were higher up than I was.

[00:24:39] Larry O’Nan: And I was probably one of about a dozen people in this room. And we had consultants advising the ministry on if it was even possible for a Christian ministry to raise a billion dollars. And they’d done the study, they’d done feasibility work, they’d done all their homework, and they said it’s possible to do that, but if you do not figure out how to teach stewardship, you’re going to create enemies rather than partners.

Because many ministries will see you competing and taking money out of the orchard, so to speak, rather than expanding the orchard. The Ministry of Cru was not prepared to set up another ministry, and the consultants were very firm on that meeting that day, and I was just that little nobody in the room and listening to all of this.

[00:25:29] Larry O’Nan: And somebody in the room as they, it was an impasse of this has got to happen or you probably were not going to raise the resources. And somebody said why don’t we just sign that to Larry and let him figure out what the stewardship theology is of Campus Crusade. And that got the entire room to say, okay, we delegated that responsibility off, let’s get back to more strategic things related to the campaign.

But in my area of responsibility, now I had an assignment, and I was responsible to figure out something that nobody probably that day really cared if I ever figured out. But I did, because it was a responsibility that was assigned to me. And about, within the next two years, I brought two or three guys along with me, and we said, what in the world would a stewardship theology be?

[00:26:17] Larry O’Nan: What is, what are we meaning by that? And we started looking at Scripture. And other things that were written out there. And we started to formulate what we would call a stewardship theology. And that radically changed what we did into the early eighties and moving forward, because now we were involving and inviting partners to be involved in changing the world rather than just begging for money and running from it.

And it radically changed. I think even Cru today and many organizations I worked with, probably 30 organizations over the last 30 years. And I’ve tried to impact their thinking about how they see their people, how they relate to them. And you get a lot more people in partnership when you’re treating them as partners.

[00:27:02] Larry O’Nan: Joining hands and walking together in this world, rather than, I am the one that’s called in the ministry, and you’ve got money, so please give it to me so I can go spend it. I’m responsible to the steward and ironically, the steward never gives up his responsibility of his stewardship.

So, if a man is making significant money or a couple has made good money in their business, A good steward does not just give it away and dispense it. They want to know how you’re doing with it. So, accountability. I want to go see it. I want to touch it. I want to know why you did it the way you did.

[00:27:40] Larry O’Nan: What’s the ROI? Are we making an investment? It’s God’s resources at work. How are you spending it correctly? It changes the dynamic of a lot of things. If you’re looking at stewards correctly and realizing, it’s a God ordained assignment that we’ve got as individuals. to use whatever God’s given us effectively.

So, I’ve been on this trip for a long time, and I love it. I never knew I would be getting into it. That wasn’t my plan. It started off with those 20 boxes.

[00:28:14] Tommy Thomas: I’m just saying you got me thinking. The first time I remember the term fund development was when my wife and I were working with the YMCA, and they didn’t call it fundraising.

They called it Fund Development. And now that I’m looking back and thinking about that, it seemed like we were partnering with people more than we were just you know, asking for a contribution. So that makes a lot of sense.

[00:28:40] Larry O’Nan: And the concept of stewardship is way beyond if you’re a believer or not a believer.  God basically has created us to take care of his stuff. He never gave it to us. So, you’ll see in scripture that God gave them, gave the Garden of Eden to them. No, he didn’t give it to them. He allowed them to live in his garden. His basic assignment to Adam and Eve, if you go back to Genesis 2, was to take care of my stuff and you can name all the animals.

And I’m going to come down. I’m going to be so interested in what you’re doing that in the cool of the day, we’re going to walk around the garden and talk with each other. But the responsibility of being a steward was not taken away from Adam when he blew it. He was going to make a lot more work for him.

[00:29:25] Larry O’Nan: He had to go pull weeds and take care of things differently by the sweat of his brow, as the scripture said. But the responsibility never changed. God still owns it all, and God wants us to take care of his stuff. Now, God’s got five other things he wants us to do as well, but they’re all related to stewardship.

It’s when an organization embraces the idea of partnering with the ministry, whether I chair a board of an organization here in San Bernardino County called Santa Claus Incorporated. That’s its legal name. In 1951, it was incorporated as Santa Claus Incorporated, and we help about 225,000 kids a year that are some of the most desperate kids in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

[00:30:11] Larry O’Nan: And it’s all about finding partners to work with us so that those kids can have what they need in terms of sometimes toys at Christmas. It could be shoes. It could be anything else they need. Backpacks. We work with school districts. We work with kids in crisis that are coming out of homes that the state’s taken kids away from their parents.

And it’s all about helping the kid have a sense of well-being while he’s under a state of crisis. But over and over again, the stewardship there is that we’ve got people nationally, and locally, they volunteer their time, they volunteer their money internationally, their organizations that are partnering with us to help us through, we work with some very large nonprofit facilitating type groups in New York and Washington DC that help us get goods.

[00:31:06] Larry O’Nan: So, we give around six and a half million dollars’ worth of product away every year because of partnerships.  Nobody feels like we have gouged them for money. Nobody feels like we’ve messed up their life. We’ve not been offensive to them. They are seeing that we’re working together to accomplish a goal.

So, whether it’s a secular, humanitarian, or a very fine church, or a very fine nonprofit, evangelistic group, whatever it is, are we really treating and working in partnership with the people that God has placed in the hands of that organization to make that organization work? And when you mess up, they stop giving, but they don’t, their money doesn’t disappear, but they’ll give it someplace else.

If you abuse a relationship, they’re going to go someplace else.


[00:31:54] Tommy Thomas: Join us next week, as we conclude this conversation with Larry O’Nan.  We will continue our discussion about lifestyle stewardship and fund development. I also asked Larry to talk a bit about his new book, Intentional Living and Giving, which was released in early April.

“Stewardship and giving is all about relationships.  If you abuse the relationship, the steward will give it somewhere else.” -Larry O’Nan


Links and Resources

JobfitMatters Website

Next Gen Nonprofit Leadership with Tommy Thomas

The Perfect Search – What every board needs to know about hiring their next CEO

Larry O’Nan’s Website 

Larry O’Nan’s Email: [email protected]


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