3 experts discuss lessons (already) learned during the coronavirus pandemic, and where we’re likely headed from here
What were some key tenets of the church giving landscape prior to the coronavirus pandemic? How has it shifted since then?
Aaron Dolton: Prior to the pandemic, churches already knew that online and mobile giving was vital to their financial wellbeing. Many had already adopted digital tools to enhance the church going and giving experience.
During the pandemic, we found that the use and dependency of digital tools was accelerated. Unfortunately, churches that were slow to adopt technology prior to the pandemic were left more financially vulnerable than the early adopters. From a donor perspective, their generosity continued to shine even through these unknown times. In fact, 55% of them remained consistent or increased their online and mobile giving amounts through the pandemic. Also, their giving amounts grew, on average, from $102 to $112.50, a nearly 10% increase.
Not only did these generous donors give to their place of worship, but our research at Givelify revealed that nearly 1 in 5 gave to multiple places of worship during the pandemic. Keeping donors engaged through technology and leveraging online and mobile giving has been a key difference between churches that fared better than those who lagged in adoption.
Amanda Lee: Our partner churches at Infinity Giving are really focused on creating cultures of financial sustainability. So, pre-coronavirus,
they had those tools in place.
With the onset of the coronavirus, they’re still interested in helping people understand what God wants for them in this area of their lives, but how they communicate this to people has changed a bit.
Pre- and mid-pandemic, we’ve found that when churches keep this focus, funding follows. Their mindset isn’t We need dollars to keep going; it’s This is what God has called us to. As a result, even amidst this crisis, our partner churches are seeing significant increases in giving of 25% to 36%.
We’ve also encouraged churches to simplify their tools and refine their mindset. It’s not about what’s easiest and best for your church; it’s about what’s easiest and best for the giver. If, for example, someone watching online logs on to make a gift and sees a dropdown menu with 100 available funds, it can be confusing and overwhelming. That might be the best pathway for your church — but not for that giver.
Marty Baker, D. Min.: Leading up to the coronavirus outbreak, many churches had grown complacent in teaching Biblical generosity. At that time, the country was experiencing the best economy in recent history. During times of economic prosperity, there’s a tendency to focus on other church needs instead concentrating on giving. It takes money to do ministry, and if the money is available, then the message is often redirected.
What we’ve learned during this season is that in most cases, it’s not how much money you’ve had coming in, but how the church has managed that money.
Our church had money reserves, so the fear of the shutdown didn’t affect us; however, we haven’t always been in that place. In the first decade of ministry, we lived week-to-week. Some congregations won’t survive this pandemic, while others will weather the storm and ultimately rebuild.
The coronavirus outbreak has changed how we’ll do church in the foreseeable future. Some will use this as a reason to not worship in community with other believers. This isn’t what God intended when the church was born on Day of Pentecost. The church was designed to be a spiritual family. It’s a place where we can love and be loved, where we can celebrate and be celebrated, and where we can serve and be served. The mandatory church closures forced congregants to move to an online worship experience. This move provides pseudo community. It provides content and connection through technology. However, it doesn’t provide the spiritual opportunity of being in a room with other people as they experience the power of the Holy Spirit.
Online experiences meet a need, but they’ll never be an adequate replacement for in-person gatherings. It’s difficult to baptize people, lay hands on people and disciple children through our online campus.
On the positive side, our online experience is better than ever, and we’ll continue to grow an online congregation. Online services are great for people who are sheltered in place and people who are traveling out of town. They’re also a very effective tool of evangelism that can be used to introduce the message of Christ and your church to people in the area.
In your experience, has the coronavirus pandemic incited reluctant churches — those that have been slower to adopt digital giving — to take a fresh look at their giving options?
Dolton: We’ve definitely seen churches that were more comfortable with traditional giving methods adopt digital giving. And honestly, the reluctancy is understandable. Faith leaders want the best for their members and have concerns about costs, security, and ease of use. In fact, 54% said an older, non-tech-savvy congregation was the main reason they didn’t adopt online and mobile giving sooner. These organizations found that not only do their older members enjoy using our free and secured platform, they find it was much easier to use and they often give more than in person.
“Take the time to expand on giving. Believe it or not, the coronavirus pandemic can be a wonderful time to reenergize your people with generosity encouragement. People want the church to thrive. Share with them, in detail, how they can help you do that.”
— Marty Baker, D. Min.
Baker: What has surprised us most is how many churches still don’t have a reliable digital giving solution. What I know for certain is that digital giving is no longer considered a convenience; it’s now, with great certainty, a requirement for churches. If your church doesn’t take the time to implement a system like SecureGive, it won’t be able to survive something like what we’re experiencing.
Interestingly, we see God’s hand on these digital giving tools. We’ve heard report after report of church giving actually growing during this time.
Among churches that adopted new giving tools during the pandemic, how have they gotten the word out and encouraged their use?
Lee: Especially now, it’s important to be very unapologetic and clear about mission and ministry accomplishments. It’s about conveying, We’re not physically coming together, but here’s the ministry that’s still occurring. Getting those stories out communicates that the church has never been about a building; it’s about the people of Christ coming together and living like Christ. And it’s important to clearly tie those accomplishments back to pathways and options for giving.
We’ve seen churches do this most effectively through social media — lots of Facebook, Instagram and YouTube posts. Pastors have really upped their communication about online giving and are being very intentional about it with every worship service.
They’re also sending targeted communications to certain segments of the congregation, of course.
Baker: Churches using a system like ours for the first time, or reintroducing their current system, are doing so in a digital format. We’re seeing churches use creative videos, pre-recorded worship moments, live streaming graphics, email campaigns and more, in ways they’ve never done before. There has been a massive shift in a very short amount of time.
Dolton: We’ve made it easy for our church partners to create giving links unique to their place of worship. We have seen them including these in a variety of channels like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, as well as traditional channels like email. Many are including links to their online giving tools in their direct mailers, as well, and even making follow-up phone calls.
A church leader might assume that it takes a lot of time, energy and expertise to mobilize or set up new giving options. What’s the reality? And once these tools are in place, what does their use and upkeep look like?
Baker: Our team has churches set up in two business days. The beautiful thing about it is that the system is always working for you. The heart of SecureGive is to keep you equipped with clear and useful data to minster and grow your people. As long as your team is willing to follow our advice early on, we set you up for success.
The upkeep should always be minimal. Again, we’re a solution; we’re not a problem.
Dolton: We pride ourselves in making the process simple and easy. We can go from sign-up to accepting first donation in less than five minutes and typically the process takes less than an hour of a church leader’s own time. The upkeep is also very minimal for our church partners as we offer a completely free donation management system, no matter the congregation size. They can integrate with their own financial management software. Plus, the dashboard enables them to track every single donation and provides intelligent analytics such as giving trends and reporting.
“It’s not about what’s easiest and best for your church; it’s about what’s easiest and best for the giver. If, for example, someone watching online logs on to make a gift and sees a dropdown menu with 100 available funds, it can be confusing and overwhelming. That might be the best pathway for your church — but not for that giver.”
— Amanda Lee
Lee: In our experience, setting up digital giving is fairly quick and easy — but churches must also be very careful to properly set up the supporting processes.
Specifically, transparency is something we’re really passionate about at Infinity Giving. If givers are being incorrectly charged, it can really kill your church’s credibility and people’s confidence in you. So, don’t underestimate the need for back office processes that include properly accounting for and reconciling gifts.
Another point I’d make is around the notion that digital giving options are expensive because of the transaction fee. Maybe it’s a 3% transaction fee on each gift. Some church leaders would say that if someone sends a check instead, the church “doesn’t pay anything.” I believe that’s a flawed perspective; someone will need to touch that check (often, multiple times), so you are paying something.
And even if this work is done by a volunteer, sending a check still isn’t the easiest option for the giver. We live in a digital world.
So, again, we’d urge churches to be donor- or giver-centric rather than accounting department-centric.
For churches that already offer digital giving, in what ways have you seen them “up their game” or make better use of those tools during the coronavirus pandemic?
Lee: Before the coronavirus outbreak, a lot of churches broadcast videos of their Sunday services after the fact and were reluctant to mention giving. We’ve seen a shift since then.
Now, churches are broadcasting live and on-demand, and they’re including a “give” button. They’re also much more comfortable having an offering. Again, just because you’re not physically together, doesn’t mean that God isn’t calling people to be generous with their lives.
Also, churches are ministering more to a whole segment of the church population that’s never been physically with them and probably never will be: the digital viewers. If your church isn’t recognizing them, then you aren’t ministering to them.
I think these are positive changes, even if they’re borne out of necessity. Every one of our churches is making an investment in the digital world and reaching people they never thought they could reach.
“Digitally savvy organizations — those with a website, live streaming, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube — saw 533% more donations during the pandemic than those that were lagging behind.”
— Aaron Dolton
Dolton: We’ve seen churches better promote their tools during this time. The consistent and increased giving we saw can be partly attributed to sharing giving links on multiple social media channels. This is also likely why we saw donors give to multiple places of worship. As people live-streamed more church services, their generosity was one simple tap away. Also, as simple as it sounds, asking for donations more frequently resulted in generous donors giving more. Digitally savvy organizations — those with a website, live streaming, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube — saw 533% more donations during the pandemic than those that were lagging behind.
Baker: More than ever, I think churches realize that having online giving on their websites is a starting place, not the total answer. With other tools available (kiosks, mobile applications, text giving options and so on), they’ve realized that digital giving is not one-size-fits-all. The churches that have taken the time to diversify their digital giving offerings, are the ones we’re seeing have the most success right now.
Moving forward, churches will be bolder to drive generosity and stewardship within their congregations. They will also be more comfortable trusting technology like ours. We’re so blessed to be able to provide a solution for the unthinkable.
Using technology for giving can seem impersonal. How can a church go beyond surface-level interactions with its church family, especially when in-person fellowship is a limited option?
Lee: Giving will seem impersonal if you treat it impersonally.
If a young mother is giving and supporting the ministry, you should be talking to her differently about it than you should a long-time church member who plans to leave a legacy gift. It’s a different communication, a different medium and message.
Remember: don’t think first about what’s best or easiest for the church. Instead ask yourself, What’s this person passionate about? What’s going on in his or her life? Chances are, sending every giver the same form letter your church created three years ago isn’t what’s best for anyone.
Also pay attention to personalization. If you’re using an e-delivery platform like Mailchimp, make sure the recipient’s first name shows up correctly in the email greeting, not as a bunch of random symbols, incorrectly capitalized, or misspelled. That can make you lose credibility. Consider the accuracy of your database, maybe names are spelled wrong, or divorced members are still listed as married. An accurate database is a vehicle through which you can show care and demonstrate to your people that they matter to you.
Baker: In many ways, digital formats — Facebook, Roku, web streaming — present new and exciting opportunities to weave digital giving into reaching your people. One practical advantage is that you now have the option to pre-record your services. Take the time to expand on giving. Believe it or not, the coronavirus pandemic can be a wonderful time to reenergize your people with generosity encouragement. People want the church to thrive. Share with them, in detail, how they can help you do that.
The corner is being turned. The Church will return to in-person fellowship soon.
Dolton: We find that the interaction can still go beyond surface-level if it’s authentic. It’s also important for church leaders to create a dialogue with donors and not simply receive donations without providing a response. We actually make this easy for leaders to respond with a personal note on every donation. After all, our platform is where places of worship come to instantly connect with the fastest-growing community of people doing good.
Just like with social media, the greater the engagement, the greater the response and authenticity.
— Reporting by RaeAnn Slaybaugh