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Challenging times create communication imperatives

Leaders connect with staff and congregations through 21st century technology.

By Stuart M. Manewith

There are opportunities, believe it or not, for churches and other faith-based nonprofits in an economic downturn. In order to survive, churches have no choice but to continue striking a balance in conducting ministry initiatives, relationship-building and business.

Most importantly, they are continuing to support their communities. And, in order to be successful during difficult times, they are all the more dependent on faith-driven giving.

Communicating effectively is the key in connecting not only with a congregation, but with staff as well. If a message is not properly delivered it will be lost — and the method to deliver that message is changing. Let’s look at a few of those communications:

1. More church offices and administrators will prefer to communicate by e-mail — and there will likely be an explosive increase in the use of text-messaging. Church staff members will be more accessible with the instant communication that e-mail and text-messaging provides.

Online communication via e-mail, as well as texting, is often a preferred method of communication for congregants as well. It’s that immediate answer they are looking for. They like to have that fast response that an email or a text-message provides.

The challenge for some churches is they are often the last to jump on the technology train. Members of the congregation may not yet have acquired the technology or don’t know how to use computers, e-mail or text-messaging.

So while e-mail and texting may be cost effective and quick, they may not yet appeal to the masses. The solution will be to ensure that church offices, pastors, and staff members have the technology resources needed to communicate with as many constituents as possible who want to receive communication, and reply, 21st-Century-style.

2. While older church members may not be comfortable with computers and cell phones, younger members today will expect information over the Internet. They will expect the church Web site to provide as much access to their church as a bank Web site would to their bank. So to appeal to a younger audience, churches will have to be more technologically savvy.

3. More pastors will be turning to social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter to communicate with members, especially to communicate and involve younger members.

While this may be a challenge for more traditionally-focused pastors, the outcome may also build a more “virtual” and far-reaching congregation. Social networking is really what communication is evolving into. It does not replace face-to-face communication, but it extends the reach.

4. The printed and mailed (via USPS) is still the most familiar means of communicating to members, but many members will, in fact, expect church newsletters to be sent via e-mail. Churches need to prepare to communicate this transition and develop a plan to utilize this avenue to share information on a regular, consistent basis. The upside of this is the money that will be saved in the production and postage of the traditional hard copy, mailed newsletters. Is your church asking for the sharing of e-mail addresses?

There will still be members who expect the printed version of the newsletter as well. The quality of a church’s database will be critical to the success of the communication.

At one larger church, members can “opt-in” to getting the newsletter electronically by sending their e-mail address to the editor — otherwise, they get it the old fashioned way. Every time someone subscribes to get the newsletter electronically, church postage costs decrease.

5. Effective fundraising has become more crucial. It comes as no surprise that major donors, indeed donors in general, who rely on investment income to make donations may reduce giving. Investment assets have been reduced due to the economic downturn. Moreover, those congregants who give to collection plate offerings will likely not increase giving. Churches will need to focus on faith- or mission-driven giving, rather than on “low-touch” appeals.

Churches will likely see a swing in existing giving from more unrestricted to more restricted. In a tight economy, donors want to make sure their gifts are going to the program they support. Churches need to find the right programs to promote and initiate; programs that will appeal to their congregation.

6. Donors will be expecting better fiscal stewardship. They’ll expect the church to be clearer about how the contributions are used. Churches should expect to provide more thorough reporting — whether it be from the pulpit, correspondence to members who contribute, or in reports created for donors at the end of a specific campaign. The church or its governance organization should be prepared to have an in-depth reporting plan to effectively show where donations have been allocated.

Since giving includes non-monetary gifts as well, transparency across the giving spectrum is important. Donors are more likely to scrutinize how church assets are invested, making sure they are invested in safe vehicles. Transparency and openness in this arena will be very important to assure members that the moneys that they give willingly are being effectively stewarded.

Churches need to develop the right appeals and programs to ensure that they are the choice that donors make for their discretionary dollars.

7. With all of this new Internet, cell phone, and e-mail technology at hand, one of the most important things to remember is the value of meaningful relationships. Because of the increasing high volume of online communications, human interaction is even more important and significant. Congregants will continue to depend on meaningful relationships with pastors and lay leaders, making high-touch interactions imperative to address issues such as fundraising and governance.

Knowing the members of the church leads to better understanding of what is appealing to them. When a church leader communicates with his or her members, he or she should know how to appeal to them.

To be effective at caring for constituents while the economy is rebuilding itself, churches are more reliant than ever on support from their constituents. Is your church prepared?

Stuart M. Manewith CFRE is business development manager, Professional Services, Blackbaud, Charleston, SC. [www.Blackbaud.com]

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