Best Practices for Church Development with Online Giving

Posted on June 30, 2016

From St. Joan of Arc Parish, Hershey, Pennsylvania

Stewardship and development aren’t new initiatives at St. Joan of Arc Parish, but the church’s strategic planning and best practices exemplify a new approach to other churches looking to nurture growth in giving.
Leading the charge is Jackie Abel, who serves as director of stewardship and development at the 2,900-family parish. Abel joined the church staff in April 2013, where her 11 years of experience in nonprofit development complements her gifts for understanding stewardship as a component of the faith journey and communicating that message with clarity and gratitude to the church community. She relies on ParishSOFT’s ConnectNow Family Suite with its integrated Offering & Pledges and Online Giving modules to support that effort.

First, the Website!

St. Joan of Arc’s Online Giving presence at stjoanhershey.org caught our eye. Their entire website is fabulous! Current, beautifully designed, and comprehensive, members and visitors alike will find the site welcoming, informative, and easy to navigate. St. Joan of Arc intentionally built a website to support the constant demand for good communication — whatever your interest, stjoanhershey.org helps you find what you need quickly.

It’s a mission-oriented representation of the St. Joan of Arc family that instills confidence — an essential ingredient for any organization that seeks member participation and financial support.

St. Joan of Arc, Hershey, PA

Culture of Tithing

While many churches take a that’ll have to be good enough approach, repeating the same efforts year after year, this parish recognizes that to do development right, churches must continuously improve what they do and how they help people feel more connected with the many components of discipleship. Strengthening the culture of giving takes time, planning, and the proper tools.

The parish’s ConnectNow Family Suite data show that while overall giving at St. Joan of Arc has increased over the past two years, 53% of the total membership contributed in 2015. The goal is to increase that by 10%.

“If you continue to do things the way you have always done them, you’ll get the same results,” said Abel. “Our philosophy is to evaluate how things are or are not working and then work to improve them.”

Publishing the Financials

When Jackie Abel researched how to present church financials in St. Joan of Arc’s annual Year In Review report, she visited many church websites only to discover a lot of outdated information. In many cases, it was difficult to find any annual reports at all. “From a development perspective,” said Abel, “that’s a big no-no. Churches have to have their financials in proper order and should make them easy for donors to find online.”

Setting Context for Giving

St. Joan of Arc’s financial report is on the website’s main Stewardship page within the Year In Review document, which is a compilation of annual reports from the parish’s five commissions: Liturgy & Worship, Community Life, Pastoral Care & Outreach, Evangelization & Faith Formation, and Stewardship & Development. The report compares income and expenses for its church and school from year to year, with notations to explain assessments, endowments, bequests, and any special circumstances. It’s easy to see at a glance where the money comes from and where it’s been spent.

Dollar amounts, reported in the context of the church’s work, establish the logical and emotional connections between the money and the ministries. Noting the ministry accomplishments (e.g., the parish assisted 55 grieving families, married 27 couples, baptized 73 members) affirms members’ ownership in the mission, reminds them how they benefit individually and as a community, and keeps a message of faithful discipleship at the core.

Building Connections

Well developed, quality communications presented across multiple channels, including the Year In Review, blend succinct, impactful writing with graphic elements that make the tithing message appealing, mission-centered, and easy to digest. As the words of tithing have steadily become integrated into parish life, they have helped members see their giving through the lens of the Gospel.

It helps that St. Joan of Arc is a parish that knows how to tell its story. In practice, that means they don’t just say they’re a tithing parish and ask you to give. They tell you why they’re a tithing parish, explain what that means and who benefits, and spell out how you can participate. It’s not a one-time announcement but an ongoing conversation about discipleship.

Part of that effort involves not assuming what everybody knows and highlighting facts, such as the differences between the general operating fund and special campaigns. With each giving option, the parish presents a clear, consistent message, so donors can make informed, thoughtful gifts with a full understanding of the impact they are making.

Maximizing the Digital

St. Joan of Arc also knows when to change things up to meet people where they are. Direct mail campaigns alone are no longer enough of an invitation — successful church development requires a digital strategy. St. Joan of Arc supports its development efforts through social media, email campaigns, a mobile app, it’s website, and, of course, tools that let people give the way they want.

Online Giving Logistics

Before St. Joan of Arc began using ParishSOFT’s Online Giving in late 2013, they already had 120 families making electronic gifts through two other systems. One was an electronic check service that offered no donor interface. The other was a credit card service that, despite having a donor interface, resulted in half of the donations being input by the parish staff.

Neither system was designed with church stewardship in mind. No alerts were available for expiring credit cards, so regular gifts just stopped without any donor notification. Neither integrated with the church’s offertory software, which contributed to the church’s struggle with recording donations accurately. End-of-year contribution statements were hard to compile and often inaccurate.

The parish saw the opportunity to solve all of those issues with the ConnectNow Family Suite and went for it.

Transitioning Gracefully

Each current EFT donor was contacted by letter and phone about making the switch to Online Giving. Many had been frustrated by incorrect tax statements in the past. “When I’d say ‘You can print your own statements!’ they saw the benefits right away,” Able said.

Some donors with expired credit cards weren’t even aware their planned gifts to the church had stopped. “One guy felt so bad he wrote a check for the previous year’s tithing before setting up his giving in the new system,” said Abel. “That’s speaks to a strong connection between giving and discipleship.”

Now, Online Giving keeps donors informed with proactive alerts to approaching expiration dates and transaction confirmations. They can give to any fund using their choice of bank account, credit card, or multiple accounts.

Because Online Giving and Offertory are integrated, donors who give by check, cash, online, or a combination of methods can see their total giving history from their secure login any time they like.

Tactical Best Practices

The parish office appreciates that Online Giving is self-serve for members and doesn’t require lots of administration from staff. They have enriched the site’s donor experience and maximized the benefits for the church through good processes and full use of the system’s tools.

  • Customize the system’s standard email notifications to put a personal touch on the messages donors get for payment receipts, account issues, etc.
  • Review reports regularly. Staff check the system’s failed transaction report weekly. “I’ve contacted donors who didn’t know their credit cards had been put on hold due to suspicious activity. They heard from the church before they heard from their bank. That builds trust,” said Abel.
  • Turn on the quick give option. “Quick give has been good for memorial donations,” said Abel. “It’s also worked well for the school parents who aren’t parishioners. They can get in and out fast without setting up a login.”
  • Send thank-you cards. Staff check memorial donation reports at least once a week and send two personalized cards: one to notify the family of the person memorialized and another to thank the donor. Donors also receive a message of gratitude in the automated email from the system and, of course, with their end-of-year giving statements.
  • Be PCI-compliant. Online Giving lets churches manage giving on behalf of members who don’t want to or can’t do it themselves. Abel enters bank or credit card information while she’s on the phone with the donor. “I don’t have to write any account information down or worry about shredding it,” she said. “There’s no reason for us to retain that info once its encrypted in the system. It makes PCI Compliance a piece of cake!”
  • Orient your donors. St. Joan of Arc has prominent Online Giving buttons or links wherever electronic payment is an option: offertory, special collections, religious education fees, or gifts to funds like Heart of the Parish and memorials. Online Giving is always easy to find.
  • Use your data. ConnectNow provides data analysis and communication tools to support Online Giving and overall development goals. Accurate contribution, pledge, and member records (all in a single database) will help Abel get a clearer picture of what’s working and where she can improve. From there, she can move forward with strategic planning, segmented appeals, and personalized outreach to specific segments of the parish demographics.

Long-term Strategy

St. Joan of Arc Parish makes development and stewardship look easy with good planning, faith-filled messaging, beautiful presentation, and smart use of information and tools. The generous disciples who make up this parish community today are certainly in good hands, and it’s clear that future generations of parishioners will one day look back in gratitude for the gift of ministries and facilities made possible today.

About St. Joan of Arc Parish

Established in 1920 in the Diocese of Harrisburg, St. Joan of Arc parish was founded by immigrants who worked at Hershey Chocolate Factory and local quarries. The annual Year in Review annual report on the ministries, school, and finances of the parish is published on www.stjoanhershey.org/stewardship. The staff at St. Joan of Arc use the ConnectNow Family Suite’s Family Directory, My Own Church, Religious Education, Offering & Pledges, Online Giving, and Ministry Scheduler modules to help power their ministries.