Top Mistakes Parishes Make with Electronic Offertory

By Timothy Dockery

Many parishes have introduced some method for families to make their Offertory and other donations electronically using direct debits from bank accounts or credit cards. Working with our more than 2200 parish customers, we analyzed hundreds of different ways parishes approached this service – from introduction through execution – and identified the most common pitfalls parishes experienced that limited the success of their Electronic Offertory effort.

These pitfalls are summarized below and are offered as a guide to parish leaders to help them get the most from their Electronic Offertory program.

  1. Lacking a proven plan to introduce Electronic Offertory to families or the strategy to encourage them to enroll – Several parishes have some program in place to accept donations electronically, but because few families are using it, they assume the interest is not there for such a service. In fact, it is likely that families are either unaware the service exists or simply need some encouragement to change what for most is a deeply ingrained behavior pattern of contributing through the envelope system. Since families who move to Electronic Offertory giving increase significantly the amount they contribute annually, the lack of a proven successful strategy to introduce Electronic Offertory prevents a parish from realizing the full potential benefit.
  2. Choosing a program that only works with bank accounts – Electronic Offertory programs that transfer funds from bank accounts are popular with parishes because of their low cost. But they are less popular with families for a variety of reasons. Many people today have variable incomes based on commissions, contract work, or are self-employed. These families know how much money they will have over a given time period, but not how much will be in their bank account at any specific time. Many others prefer to maintain a large balance in higher-yielding accounts and move funds to lower interest bank accounts only as needed. For these families, a credit card that gives them a single monthly payment to make is the preferred option for managing their financial affairs. In addition, in an era of heightened awareness of stolen identities and fraudulent charges, security experts recommend using a credit card rather than providing direct access to bank accounts in order to add the layer of security provided by the card networks. A survey of our customers revealed that 38% of families would not have enrolled in an Electronic Offertory program if bank account auto-debit was the only donation option.
  3. Not providing donation slips for families to place in the collection plate during the service – The Offertory is more than a transfer of funds or a payment or even a donation. It is part of the worship service, one where all the faithful join together to give back to God a portion of His blessings to us. Giving families an option to make that donation through an Electronic service, but failing to recognize the significant role the faithful place on participating in the Offertory collection during the service, creates a strong disincentive for families considering whether Electronic Offertory makes sense for them.
  4. Selecting a program that creates more work for the parish staff – When a parish selects a service that adds more work to an already-busy staff, or that requires mastering complex new procedures and intimidating processes, it is likely not going to be enthusiastically promoted by those staff members. Parish staffs often already wear many hats. Asking them to become experts in the bank transfer process, credit card processing and security, on-line payment technologies, funds transfer procedures, marketing, and customer service issues associated with electronic payments can serve as a disincentive to promoting Electronic Offertory more widely in the parish.
  5. Failure to understand the security issues involved with Electronic Offertory – Many parishes have begun some program of Electronic Offertory. Often, this requires a parish staff member to initiate a transmittal of the payment information for each family on a recurring schedule. How parishes store this bank and credit card data can often create unintended security risks. If the data is stored on a computer, does that computer securely encrypt the data? Is the computer connected to the Internet? If so, what level of security is provided by the browser and firewall software installed? Most of the commonly used commercial software products contain numerous, well-known security flaws, and new ones are discovered – and exploited – on a daily basis. Daily updates are required in an effort just to stay ahead of the criminal hacker community.
  6. Simply trying to replicate the weekly envelope system – The initial Offertory of fruits from the harvest only occurred when the harvest was conducted. Up until about thirty years ago, the vast majority of people received a weekly paycheck, and many of the other common financial responsibilities that a family had were met weekly as well. Today, pay cycles are widely varied, with most occurring bi-monthly or monthly and nearly all other financial priorities occur on a monthly cycle (mortgage, car payments, utility bills, cell phone bills, etc.) Research by Villanova professor Dr. Charles Zech, author of “Why Catholics Don’t Give…And What Can Be Done About It” reveals that families who make a monthly giving commitment give 40% more than those who make a weekly giving decision, on average, because they can relate that monthly gift to their other financial responsibilities. Moving families from the weekly envelope to a program of Electronic Offertory is an excellent opportunity to also ask families to consider their giving as a monthly, budgeted financial responsibility. Programs that simply recreate the weekly envelope practice often miss out on the types of increases parishes see when they take the opportunity to ask families to give differently both in form and in timing.
  7. Choosing an Electronic Offertory service that does not offer comprehensive customer support – Electronic Offertory is about much more than processing a transaction. A family’s donation to their parish is different from a payment to a company and their relationship with the parish is much deeper and more important to them than their relationship to their health club, utility or other company to whom they also make “payments.” That means when there is a need for that family to modify a donation, update an account, or get a question answered, they will expect a robust customer support presence.
  8. Choosing an Electronic Offertory service that cannot accommodate second collections and special feasts – Banks and other transaction processing services are built to repeat the same transactions over and over again. If the amount needs to change, the customer (or parish staff) often needs to go in and make that adjustment. But giving to parishes can vary each month, as parishes take up special collections for various ministries, or to celebrate liturgical feasts such as Christmas and Easter. For many parishes, these can be extremely important collections. An Electronic Offertory service that does not enable families to easily commit to the second collections as they are scheduled, and that cannot process changing monthly total donations without any extra effort by parish staffs or the families, will fail to fully capture all of the advantages available through such a service. Families will still be asked to use checks for such collections even where they have expressed a desire to give through the Electronic Offertory service.
  9. Selecting an Electronic Offertory service that is either Internet-only or, alternatively, that has no Internet capability – While more and more people grow comfortable managing their financial responsibilities using the Internet, there are still many who lack access to the Internet, have never grown comfortable using a computer, or who do not feel comfortable transmitting financial information online no matter how many assurances of security are provided. Internet-only Electronic Offertory services exclude such families. Alternatively, selecting a service that can only accept enrollments and changes by mail or fax, or that does not offer Internet-based account management and customer support services, will also cause enrollment to suffer among the technically inclined members of your parish. The ideal service offers enrollment and account management options that suit the range of people who belong to your parish – from the high-tech Internet power users to the low-tech, traditional types. Introducing Electronic Offertory is an excellent idea for parishes – but choosing the right way to do this can dramatically impact your parish’s results. 

 

 

Tim Dockery is President of ParishPay, a leader in providing electronic offertory services to Catholic parishes. For more information, please visit www.ParishPay.com

 

This article originally appeared in a special “Stewardship” section of The Pilot on September 19, 2008

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