3 experts share tried-and-true strategies
Given your experience, how important are gifts given during the Christmas season to a church’s bottom-line budget?
Jasmin: Giving during the Christmas season is crucial to the work that churches do all year. It’s true that giving at year’s end represents an increasing portion of total giving in many churches — most receive 25% percent to 33% of their yearly contributions between Thanksgiving and year’s end, according to Giving USA. Things happen during this time that impact people’s decisions to give.
If I say, “I want to give $2,400 to my church this year,” that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll give $200 each month, unless I set my gift up as an electronic payment. Things get in the way — vacation, illness, even bad weather. December can be a catch-up month.
Henning: According to our processing data, 21% of giving occurs in December. That includes digital, of course, but also check and cash. Currently, across churches, ‘off-line’ giving still constitutes more than 50%! But that’s been the case for many years: by cash, check or digital giving, Christmas has always been a critical time for churches.
What is different is the number of giving choices and channels. Emphasize giving as an act of worship throughout the year, thus
extending the giving journey across the year to balance/mitigate the holiday crunch.
Strelecki: End-of-year giving is extremely important for churches. In fact, in 2015 and 2016, 5.5% of our annual platform volume was donated during the last three days of the year, and an average of 20.4% of the total annual platform volume was donated in December. Churches should not only plan for increased gifts during the holiday season, but they should also have a strategy to make the giving process as easy as possible for potential donors.
For most people, the Christmas season brings ramped-up requests for donations from many different organizations. How can a church ensure its “ask” is compelling enough to command attention?
Henning: Digital giving has too often turned the act of giving into a disconnected, context-free ‘transaction.’ That’s a missed opportunity and a misaligned approach.
As it turns out, the most digitally inclined generations are also looking for the most engaged, context-specific engagement. They want to
know the ‘why’ and the specifics of what their giving impacts.
Then, the church can focus on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ to ensure it’s using technology to allow it to stay connected and engaged throughout mission and worship. The church can then frame giving in the context of what members are inspired by, including rich descriptions and pictures alongside a giving opportunity.
Strelecki: We’ve seen a direct correlation between transparency and donor confidence when it comes to year-end giving. People are more likely to give when they know how that money will be used. The holiday season presents a significant opportunity for church leaders to tell a meaningful story about the tangible impact their community’s donations have made throughout the year. It’s also a great time to cast vision for the year ahead about how giving will change a life, a family, a city — the world!
Jasmin: It’s extremely important to give people a reason to be generous to God’s mission through the church. Tell your congregation the story of someone in need who was helped through their donations. It helps if it’s something relatable and — especially during the Christmas season — strikes the heart, like children who need warm clothes and children who wouldn’t receive any Christmas gifts without this generosity.
Aside from the natural generosity of the Christmas season, are there other reasons why members tend to give more to their churches at this time of year?
Strelecki: Charitable giving at the end of the year is a great way for people to both reduce their tax burden as well as give to a cause they may care about. With so many churches now implementing mobile giving solutions, it’s easier than ever to give a gift.
Jasmin: Yes. I previously mentioned ‘catch-up’ donations to fulfill annual commitments. Some people wait until they know the size of their year-end bonus before completing their tithe or gift. Some people want to make additional donations before the end of the tax year. Others want to donate appreciated assets at the end of the year — again, for tax reasons. Some even want to prepay gifts, if they’ve had a particularly strong financial year.
The Christmas season also inspires generosity. There is a Christmas spirit inside everyone — it may mean something different to each of us — but as we celebrate with gifts and excitement we also celebrate the reason for Christmas, the birth of Christ. Year-end is one of the most fun times to work at Vanco because we see the generosity firsthand. It’s absolutely breathtaking.
Henning: Even if a church has stewarded its membership effectively through their giving journey, Christmas is still a very busy, distracting time of year. Providing the right tools and meeting people at the right time, with the right message, is critical.
Ensure they understand what special opportunities and/or needs exist and are served by giving to the church during the holidays.
Leverage digital engagement and communications tools to meet them in the right moment, with the right ask.
Take advantage of your congregation’s understanding that rich giving data (both on-line and off-line) provides to match season-specific giving opportunities, with the right messaging to the right individuals.
Conversely, are there factors that make members less inclined to give generously during the Christmas season?
Jasmin: People’s expenses at Christmas and the year’s end can impact generosity. As much as we may try not to, some of us outspend our budgets on gifts for friends and family, holiday parties and travel to visit relatives. Or, a person might find she owes more than expected in taxes. So, it’s a time when people in those situations may size up their finances and decide they’ve given all they can.
Henning: Common issues challenging the church are a multitude of asks and opportunities to give to other philanthropic organizations; a lack of understanding of the giving needs or reasons by the church; and a feeling of, I’ve already given to the church.
Keep the church in people’s lives, front and center. Make it easy for them to connect, engage and continue down the giving journey as part of their discipleship path — no matter how new or established they are in the congregation. Use the season as an opportunity to inspire people to take that next big step; it could be their first gift, or it might be becoming a tithing member.
Strelecki: Christmas season brings unforeseen expenses for just about everyone, and with this comes a lot of pressure. There are also a plethora of events, activities, school recitals, and out-of-town guests that distract members from attending church regularly.
Churches can reduce lost attendance by engaging with their communities first, asking them to give second, and always, always thanking them.
One way to grab attention in the midst of all the noise is by staying in constant communication with members through a mobile app. With an app, churches can quickly update their members on progress with a particular giving campaign through opt-in push notifications and text messages.
How can churches drive above-and-beyond generosity during this important season?
Henning: To reinforce and enable the giving journey — especially as year-end giving season approaches — be sure to provide easy access and communication of accurate and complete donor statements. Remind givers where they are and how they can be accessed and downloaded. Provide rich content and context of giving opportunities to connect giving to worship and mission.
Allow them to take the giving journey using whatever means works best for them. Yes, everyone is going mobile; but for some individuals and in some cases, cash or check is still preferred. In fact, almost 50% of giving comes from off-line. Likewise, some individuals still prefer responding to e-mails.
Do you know who/where/why to best engage across your congregation? Don’t make them people feel ‘out of the loop’ because of their ‘uncool’ preference, and don’t assume everything needs to be pushed to be only mobile. It’s the church’s responsibility to meet people where and how they’re most comfortably engaged!
Strelecki: I’d start with storytelling. Give your church insight into the good work they’re doing through their donations. Create moments in your services to reflect and celebrate. Video, especially, can be a powerful tool to help your church community share these stories.
Also, be sure to plan ahead. Churches should start year-end prep no later than October. For many churches, even October is too late. Get ahead. That’s critical.
Don’t forget about notifications, either. People take their phones with them everywhere they go. Use that to your advantage, but don’t abuse that relationship. Create carefully-timed, strategic, in-app messages (push notifications) designed to inspire and prompt the members of your community to action.
Finally, optimize communications by days of the week. Sunday is notoriously the strongest day of the week for giving, but Friday comes in as a close second. Monday and Tuesday are the least-engaged days of the week. So, we recommend communicating with members as close to Friday and Sunday as possible. You want to catch your people while they’re fully engaged.
Jasmin: We work with 20,000 churches and have a team of Giving Coaches whose job, every day, is to help churches increase generosity. They say that telling compelling stories of lives that have been transformed really spurs spontaneous giving.
Other approaches are very practical. For example, when one church lists what song will be sung or played during the offertory in its bulletin, it also mentions how to give online or by text. That’s not something you’d have seen five years ago.
Other churches have pew cards that read, “Don’t have cash? No problem. Use our giving app, or give by text.” They know most people will have their phones with them, even when they don’t have cash or a checkbook.
At another church, the pastor decided to give by text, so he had his phone’s screen projected on the large screen in the church to show everyone how to give. Then, he asked people to raise their hands if they had questions so ushers collecting the gifts could come over and help. At first, just one brave little hand when up; then, a bunch. The church received 40 text gifts that day, and they were still coming in a few months later. These are people who wanted to give, but they were embarrassed because they weren’t sure how.
People’s lives are busier than ever. Once they leave church or finish watching the service online, it’s important for them to be able to make the gift at that point, when they’re thinking about it.
At this time of year, churches welcome an inordinate number of visitors and guests to their campuses. What can church leaders do to inspire generosity among these individuals?
Strelecki: Don’t just focus on weekly giving for current church attendees. Think about what low point of entry causes and community projects you can highlight throughout the holiday season. For example, everyone can give $20 towards providing a Christmas dinner to a family in need. Cast the vision around what kind of impact your church could have if everyone chipped in. A habit of generosity has to start somewhere.
Make sure your generosity-focused sermons are hitting home with your audience, too. You can use in-service polls (an eChurch feature) in your mobile app to gauge your audience’s reaction to what they’re learning.
Jasmin: Make guests feel welcome, like an important part of the church experience and community. That’s done in many ways, from hosting a coffee to having ambassadors on hand to reach out and acknowledge visitors and guests during the service when everyone greets their neighbors and wishes them well.
It’s also important to tell a story of the church’s mission and
And then, of course, it’s important that they have a way to give beyond the spare change in their pocket. Most people aren’t carrying a checkbook, and many don’t carry much cash either. So, again, it’s very important that everyone has the chance to give with a text or an app on their phones, or through the church website. If they leave the church without giving, the likelihood of making that gift later is, unfortunately, pretty low.
Henning: First, maybe a somewhat controversial or contrarian question: Is this really a group that has a material impact in your giving? Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to engage a new group of individuals. And maybe, for some, it can be an initial step in their giving journey … especially if you connect with them in the moment. But beware to spend scarce resources and effort where you can maximize impact, which is with your core congregation and givers.
That said, connect with visitors and guests by sharing the mission of the church, the impact it has in the community, and what missions and programs it supports. Link that to giving as part of worship. Make giving an extension of inspiring visitors and guests to take part in the mission of the church. Reinforce this through a simple text or mobile/online experience to allow them to easily give in the context of the current experience.
In what ways can churches mobilize Christmas giving to help drive sustained, generous giving all year?
Jasmin: A big part of that is saying thank you. It’s very interesting to compare the experience of making a year-end gift to a nonprofit versus a church. Most nonprofits are extremely diligent about sending a thank you. Then, typically, they’ll send future communications about the work they do, and invite you to continue giving.
Some churches are doing that; many are not.
So, acknowledge the generosity. Talk about lives changed — photos, videos and stories that help givers feel affirmed in making their gift and motivated to continue to support the work of the church.
Henning: Christmas and the year-end spirit and joy of giving can be the perfect opportunity to begin nurturing a giving journey into the next year. Targeted communications, acknowledgements, active follow-up, connecting to relevant content and context can all be used to nurture the seedlings of this season.
Proactively think through how to effectively segment and cultivate first-time givers into repeat givers, repeat givers into recurring givers, and so on.
The holidays are a wonderful, inspiring time for members of all ages to take that next step in their worship and giving journey. Make it easy, compelling and meaningful for them to do so.
Strelecki: One of the most important things churches can do is send timely thank you messages all year long. And since people are more likely to give when they fully understand where their money is going, make sure to update your givers at least quarterly about the impact their gifts are having.
High-quality and well-timed annual giving statements are also really important to send out as the new year begins.
— Reporting by RaeAnn Slaybaugh