Seasonal revenue fluctuations survey: Assessing their impact on cash reserves

SUMMARY

In May 2010 we asked members of ECCU’s Ministry Advisory Panel (MAP)** about their ministries’ monthly and quarterly revenue patterns. 63.5% of ministries claimed receiving between 25% and 35% of their total revenue/donations in the month of December. 31% received the least revenue/donations in July compared to all other months, followed by August with 21%. On the topic of cash reserves, 20% of respondent ministries stated having no cash reserves at all. Also in this report, quarterly revenue trends continue to point towards a slow but gradually improving economy.

**The MAP is composed of ECCU member and non-member ministry staff and leaders representing evangelical Christian churches, businesses, schools, and other ministries. This report was produced by ECCU’s research department.

SEASONAL REVENUE FLUCTUATIONS

Seasonal ministry revenue fluctuations have, for the most part, been subject to assumptions based on anecdotal information. The assumption has mainly been that year-end giving is to ministries what black Friday is to retail businesses, and that revenue drops during the summer months.

In keeping with our objective to be the number one resource for ministry banking, it makes sense to test this assumption and use our MAP survey findings to resource ministries more effectively.

Since nobody knows seasonal ministry revenue fluctuations better than the people who oversee ministry finances, we asked the members of ECCU’s MAP (who just happen to fit that definition perfectly) to shed some light on the subject:

 

Question: Please rank each calendar-year quarter from least (1) to greatest (4) based on the amount of revenue/donations each quarter typically represents for your ministry’s total annual revenues/donations.

  • 71% of respondents stated they received the greatest amount of revenue/donations in Q4. Of these, 35% said Q4 accounted for 31% to 35% of their total revenues/donations.
  • 18% of respondents declared Q1 to be their best performing month for revenues/donations.

Long-held assumptions about seasonal revenue fluctuations are correct. 71% of all ministries reported that they received the greatest amount of revenue in Q4 and over half reported that Q3 is when they received the least.

The next step was to put actual numbers to these seasonal trends:

 

Question: What percentage of your total annual revenues/donations do you receive during the top quarter identified in the previous question?

  • 66% of respondent ministries reported receiving between 26% to 35% of their revenues/donations from their top performing quarter.

 

Although understanding quarterly revenue fluctuation is a great start, we thought it might be helpful to capture this fluctuation from a monthly perspective:

Question: Which month of the year would you say your ministry receives the most revenue/donations?

  • 63% of respondent ministries reported December as the season for giving…and receiving.
  • March and April were each a distant second with only 10%.

 

Question: Which month of the year would you say your ministry receives the least revenue/donations?

  • Clearly, the summer months of July and August are the slowest periods for most ministries (51%).

 

The commonly held belief that December is the biggest revenue/donations month for Christian ministries is no longer just a belief. The proof is irrefutable. However, one thing this survey did not answer was whether ending the fiscal year in the summer might more evenly distribute seasonal revenue. To find out, we sought the advice of XPastor.org members. Their feedback indicates that the pattern for ministry seasonal revenue fluctuations is fixed. Nevertheless, some offered suggestions that might help ministries understand how to manage this pattern more effectively.

One XPastor contributor, whose church’s fiscal year ended in August, experienced the same cash flow fluctuations. Some of the possible reasons cited included a year-end focus on benevolence ministries, members catching up on their tithes, and taxpayers looking to minimize their exposure. Other great comments included:

“I suggest that year-end giving is related to year-end bonuses many businesses pay employees during December. My home church sees that pattern and my law firm pays about 15–20% of our compensation budget as bonuses in December.

“July and August are a result of member absences due to vacations and travel.”

—Frank Sommerville, Attorney at Law

“We have our highest giving in December, lowest in July. August is sometimes bad, sometimes good. We MOVED our year-end from December 31 to August 31 to avoid the big month at the end of the budget year.

“If we do any ‘end-of-giving year’ requests, they are very mild. I think Frank's theory is spot on.”

—Dave Patchin, Hope Community Church

“The responses you've gotten are consistent with responses I've seen over the years. For this reason our church has elected to retain a calendar year fiscal calendar. Essentially, we are 'playing in' to this tendency. Since expenses for a church tend to be pretty evenly spread out over the year, we'll track expenses and income YTD and report the 'gap' to our congregation, and progress toward closing that gap during the year-end. We figure bringing the focus and challenge to close this gap at the same time our congregation is most likely to give in large amounts is a good thing. We've essentially closed the gap or had a surplus in 34 of the last 35 years. So, it works pretty well for us.”

—Mark Simmons, Christ Community Church of Milpitas

CASH RESERVES

Seasonal revenue fluctuation patterns present an incomplete picture without understanding how ministries build and utilize their cash reserves. The next two questions sought to do this.

 

Question: How much do the revenues/donations from the top quarter previously identified contribute to your annual cash reserves?

  • 42% of respondent ministries said they moderately or greatly contributed to their cash reserves.
  • 45% said their top quarter contributed to their cash reserves only a little or very little.

 

Question: Which of the following statements describe your ministry’s use of cash reserves?

  • 20% of respondent ministries stated having no cash reserves.
  • 43% of the respondent ministries without cash reserves were parachurch organizations. Churches accounted for only 11%.
  • 31% of respondent ministries draw from their cash reserves to cover budget fluctuations or during the lean months of the year.

 

Recommendation:
Given the “fixed” nature of ministry seasonal revenue fluctuations, ministries can best manage these fluctuations by setting appropriate cash reserve goals and consulting with ministry banking professionals on the best strategies to achieve them. One possible component of a ministry’s strategy can include a savings account with a competitive return on cash reserve balances, but with the flexibility to access funds as necessary to cover the lean months and for other planned expenses. This research provides a great framework for a conversation between ministries and ministry banking professionals on the importance of managing seasonal revenue fluctuations through cash reserves.

QUARTERLY REVENUE TRENDS

Question: How did your ministry’s revenue in the first quarter of 2010 (January through March) compare to the last quarter of 2009 (October through December)?

  • 45% more ministries reported receiving lower revenue in Q1 2010 compared to Q4 2009.
  • Only 22% of respondent ministries reported higher revenue.

 

Question: How did your ministry’s revenue in the first quarter of 2010 (January through March) compare to the same quarter of 2009 (January through March)?

  • Approximately 72% of respondent ministries reported the same or higher Q1 2010 revenue compared to the same period in 2009.

 

Recommendation:
Mainstream media and many research firms continue to highlight a negative view of the economic environment. The past year, however, has seen improving revenue trends within the representative sample of member and non-member ministries participating in the MAP. These trends point toward a slow but steady recovery. Even predictions of an economic “double-dip” are softening, such that some analysts are saying if we have one at all, it probably won’t be nearly as bad as initially predicted. It’s not all bad news. If your ministry is struggling, hang in there.

“But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry." (2 Timothy 4:5, NASB)

 

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