This article by Anita Hooley Yoder originally appeared in The Mennonite. Look for a book by Anita Hooley Yoder in summer 2017 about Mennonite Women USA.
Rhoda Keener was a reluctant fundraiser.
“I would tease her that our meetings felt more like therapy sessions,” said Rebekah Basinger, an organizational consultant. “And she’s the trained counselor!”
Basinger started working regularly with Keener in 2003, about two years after Keener became director of Mennonite Women USA (formerly Mennonite Women), the denominational women’s organization of Mennonite Church USA. Basinger shared her understanding of fundraising as a ministry, a spiritual act in itself, not something you just add on to help you do ministry.
“That really resonated with Rhoda,” Basinger said in a January 2015 interview. “She shaped her whole approach to fundraising around that idea. And I really believe that’s been the key to the success.”
The “success” Basinger refers to is the transformation of Mennonite Women USA (MW USA) from a floundering organization—like many of today’s church-related groups—to a now stable and relatively thriving one, financially and otherwise.
In the 2001 fiscal year, MW USA received about $71,500 in U.S. contributions; in 2014 they took in nearly $157,000.
Back in 2001, 97 percent of giving to the organization came from groups.
For over 100 years, women in Mennonite churches have been gathering in congregations and homes to sew for mission, support local projects, and study the Bible together. By the time Keener started, though, it seemed like these kinds of groups might soon be a thing of the past.
“Every year we’d get letters from sewing circles saying things like, ‘there are three of us left, and we’re all in our 90s so we’re going to disband. God bless you,’ and I would know that their faithful giving would also stop,” Keener said in a September 2014 interview.
Keener and Basinger both knew the sewing circles’ contributions would keep dwindling.
Basinger challenged Keener to shift her focus to individual giving.
She introduced Keener to using an online donor database and other tools. Keener worked on an annual appeal letter.
Fundraising had not even been in her job description, but she saw that it was the only way forward for the organization, which received no support from the denomination and had not been able to garner any grants.
That realization brought Keener face-to-face with a striking question: What are we fundraising for?
When Keener started with Mennonite Women in 2001 it was an organization still unsure of its identity, created in 1997 through a merging of the women’s groups of two Mennonite denominations (the “Old” Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church). The organization was funding theological education for women, but only a few women were supported with a very small part of the budget.
A large part of Mennonite Women’s work was to resource and support regional and local groups, but it was hard to know what exactly the denominational group was doing for them. Mennonite Women had a subscription based magazine, but it was not fully self-supporting. Retreats were another valuable aspect of Mennonite Women, but women paid to attend.
It was difficult to construe any of these things as reasons people should donate.
“What are we doing that is worthy for women to send us money?” Keener asked herself. “What are we really doing for women in the church?”
Keener attended a workshop where she was introduced to Ichak Adizes’s life cycle of an organization.
She realized that Mennonite Women was probably in the “bureaucracy” stage, which was in the “decline” section on the chart, one step away from “death.”
“I just knew we had to find a key ministry for women to join together,” Keener said. With the help of the Mennonite Women board, she developed the idea for Sister-Link.
These would be projects where groups of women in North America would connect with women of different cultures around a particular need and were organized around the concept of mutuality where both groups became givers and receivers.
Early projects included a group in Florida sending materials for newborns to women in Dagestan and received photos of mothers and babies in return, individuals in Pennsylvania raising money for an AIDS clinic in South Africa and visited AIDS victims, and an urban African American church in Indiana connecting with a rural Anglo congregation for help with each other’s ministries.
Mennonite Women helped connect and maintain the relationships, some of which lasted longer than others. These projects also provided opportunities for people to see the women’s organization doing something meaningful.
A significant Sister-Link involved supporting a network of African Anabaptist Women Theologians (AAWT), which developed in 2003 with the collaboration of several Mennonite Church USA agencies.
MW USA established prayer partners between the African theologians and North American women theologians, gave visibility to the project, and found a volunteer to raise funds for theological scholarships. Some of the partners eventually met each other, and several of the AAWT members became the first ordained women in their denominations or countries. A story on this project made the cover of The Mennonite, the denominational magazine, in November 2009.
The wider church was seeing significant activity sponsored by the women’s organization.
Meanwhile, Keener kept meeting regularly with Basinger and developing her previously non-existent fundraising skills. Basinger challenged her to focus on individual donors, a strategy at use in the larger organizational world.
They developed the “Lydia Circle,” a designation for individuals who give $500 or more per year, and Keener cultivated relationships with well over 100 “Lydias.”
By 2008, individual and group giving was just about 50/50, a huge change from the 3 percent individual giving in 2001! In 2014, individual giving surpassed group giving by over $30,000.
Even with the relative success of some of the Sister-Link projects, Keener felt a need for MW USA to be doing more.
In the past, annual reports were solicited from regional women’s groups, asking for things like numbers of quilts made and programs given. Keener decided to end this practice and instead send a survey asking groups, “What are the needs of women in your church?”
The reports came back with pages of needs and desires, from being able to connect better with others to issues of mental health and gender roles. Keener began to form an idea for something that she had needed as a woman in the church and that she sensed other women were longing for as well.
The idea was “Sister Care.”
It started small and slowly, with Keener meeting at her home with interested women from local churches. They talked about how women can minister to other women in unique ways, and how women who have faced difficult circumstances often do not feel comfortable going to church leadership, especially if those difficult things relate to sexual or gender issues. Through many doubts, setbacks, and periods of re-visioning, the idea took root.
With the help of Ruth Lapp Guengerich, an MW USA board member who was hired as co-director in 2010, Keener led several “Sister Care” weekend seminars, drawing on her background in mental health and teaching.
Things were not easy during this time for Keener. She was using an assortment of materials for each seminar and while women responded with genuine passion to Sister Care, she was not sure she was communicating her vision effectively. She felt discouraged and alone and thought about quitting the organization altogether.
In 2009, MW USA met for strategic planning and developed a new vision statement: “We invite women across generations, cultures, and places to share and honor our story, care for each other, and speak our prophetic voice boldly as we seek to follow Christ.”
Keener realized that this vision statement perfectly matched her vision for Sister Care. She felt empowered to move forward, and knew she needed help.
Keener pulled in board members Guengerich and Carolyn Holderread Heggen, who helped her rethink Sister Care entirely and with Heggen’s leadership, they wrote a new and expanded manual. Heggen, a psychotherapist with a Ph.D. who was a well-known speaker in the wider church, became a co-presenter with Keener.
Having grown up in Puerto Rico, lived as an adult in Pakistan and Nepal and done community trauma healing in numerous other countries, Heggen brought many intercultural connections. Keener and Heggen led Sister Care seminars in several states and the first international seminar in India in 2012.
By the end of 2014, seminars had been held in all 21 area conferences of Mennonite Church USA, as well as 11 international countries in Asia, Central and South America, Canada, and the Caribbean. The manual was translated into Spanish, Kek’chi’ and Portuguese.
“Sister Care has really transformed the organization,” said Basinger, pointing out that it has brought both new life and new giving. Basinger said that it usually does not work to get individuals to give without a specific emphasis, and Sister Care, especially the international seminars, has often been that. With the technology expertise of Communications Director, Claire DeBerg, MW USA developed an active blog, Facebook page, and Twitter account—supporters can follow events almost in real time. “They can share what God is doing in the lives of these women,” said Basinger. “That’s how you grow women’s hearts.”
MW USA still faces many challenges today.
While the organization is on solid financial footing and has received generous grants from several sources, it is always uncertain how much money will be available for the coming years. Funds are constantly needed for new projects, such as putting the magazine online, hoping to stop the decrease in magazine subscriptions. Some younger women are involved in the organization—and a pilot Sister Care seminar for college women was offered in March 2015 at Goshen College, Ind., with a follow-up planned for fall 2015—but there is still the lingering perception that MW USA is mostly for older women, especially women who sew.
There are many Mennonite women who still do meet together and sew, and the organization wants to acknowledge their important, faithful work as they continue to move forward.
MW USA embarks on a new chapter in April 2015.
Following Guengerich’s retirement, Marlene Harder Bogard was hired as executive director. Keener will continue part-time as Sister Care director. Basinger has relished the chance to walk alongside MW USA for such an extended period and see the organization change. She noted that when she mentions her work with MW USA to other Mennonite Church USA groups, people have said that MW USA is a bright spot in the denomination.
“I’ve worked with other denominations,” Basinger said, “and I certainly do not hear that about their women’s organization. But, no organization dares to be complacent and assume that what they’re doing now will work for the long haul.”
Basinger points out that in today’s world organizations have to be constantly reinventing themselves while not losing the best of what they have.