12 Things to Consider When Choosing an Online Giving Platform
By Ken Sloane
When I came into my position as Director of Stewardship more than twelve years ago, one of the first things I set my sights on was encouraging and resourcing local church finance leaders to offer online giving. Even back then, checks were fading from the scene as more people were paying their bills with electronic transfers, and many were receiving their income deposited to their accounts electronically. It was a “tough sell” in those early days, with the biggest objection being the fees associated with providing that service.
Ironically, I’ve recently realized that back when I was a pastor in local churches we spent a sizable amount of money on offering envelopes – purchasing and personalizing them for each household, then mailing the ones that folks didn’t pick up in church. Many of the envelopes we mailed to folks never produced a dollar in offerings to the church. It was not a small amount of money, but I don’t ever remember anyone complaining about the cost. What is different about online giving is the fees we complain about our only charged when someone actually gives!
The COVID pandemic gave the church some valuable lessons; one was the value of providing members and donors a way to set up regular recurring giving. Having our donations come to the church, even on Sundays when we are not able to be there, is a great comfort to many who love and are committed to our local congregations.
The COVID pandemic gave the church some valuable lessons; one was the value of providing members and donors a way to set up regular recurring giving.
It seems to me in the conversations I have had with local church leaders that price continues to be the factor that drives the decision about which vendor the church will use. I am aware that, in these times, finding ways to save a little here and there is important for local churches (as it is for an agency like Discipleship Ministries). However, I would like to offer a list of considerations for churches choosing their first online giving vendor, or their next one. Some of these may not be relevant in your setting, but I still suggest that some of these listed should rank as more important than who has the lowest fees.
Here are twelve things to consider when choosing an online giving platform for your church:
1. DATA SECURITY AS A CORNERSTONE
Protecting your donors' sensitive information is paramount. Look for a platform that employs industry-leading security measures, such as SSL encryption and tokenization of financial data. Ensure the platform has a proven track record of safeguarding donor privacy and adhering to stringent security protocols.
2. SIMPLICITY OF USE FOSTERS GENEROSITY
A user-friendly interface is essential for encouraging online giving. The platform should be mobile-optimized and offer a seamless donation process that caters to donors of all ages and varying levels of comfort with technology. Provide multiple payment options, including credit cards, debit cards, PayPal, and ACH transfers to accommodate diverse preferences.
3. DEPENDABLE IMPORTS WITH YOUR CHURCH MANAGEMENT SYSTEM
Streamline your operations by choosing a platform that integrates well with your existing church management software. This integration will facilitate effortless donor management, and donation tracking and reporting, saving valuable time and resources. Be aware that the church management system you are presently using may not be the one you will be using far into the future, so a platform that integrates with many church management systems is often your best choice.
4. SEAMLESS INTEGRATION WITH YOUR WEB PRESENCE
Ensure the online giving platform integrates with your church's website, allowing donors to donate directly from your online hub. Being able to “brand” the donation page (even something as simple as matching the color scheme of the rest of your website) will make people feel that they are not leaving your website. This seamless integration will help build donors’ confidence, enhance the user experience, and encourage more frequent and convenient giving.
5. MOBILE GIVING: A MUST-HAVE IN TODAY'S DIGITAL WORLD
With the prevalence of mobile devices, a mobile app provided by your vendor for both iOS and Android platforms is crucial. This app should offer the same functionality, security, and ease of use as the web-based platform, ensuring donors can contribute conveniently from anywhere, anytime. One that allows donors to use securely stored information (even biometrics like facial recognition or thumbprint scans) will make giving easier than writing a check.
6. PRICING: STRIKING THE RIGHT BALANCE
Online giving platforms typically charge a fee for their services. Evaluate pricing structures carefully, considering factors such as monthly fees, transaction fees, and additional feature charges. Some vendors may scale their fees depending on the size of your congregation or the number of households using the service. Look for a platform that offers a transparent and cost-effective pricing plan tailored to your church's budget and giving volume. Many services will offer an option for donors to increase their gift to an amount that will cover those fees, but there should be some discussion of whether that is the best decision in your context.
7. CLOUD-BASED OR LOCALLY STORED: NAVIGATING THE OPTIONS
Decide whether a cloud-based or locally stored platform suits your church's needs. Cloud-based platforms offer scalability and remote accessibility, while locally stored platforms provide greater control over data management. If your church is in an area where internet service is not dependable, this might play in your decision. Cloud-based alternatives are updated continually with improvements and security enhancements. Assess your church's infrastructure, security preferences, and technical expertise to make an informed decision.
8. TIMELY TRANSFER OF FUNDS
Ensure the platform offers timely transfer of funds to your church's account. Minimize delays in receiving donations to maintain financial stability and fund ongoing operations effectively. Holding on to funds for an extended period is a benefit for the vendor, and if that is the vendor’s practice, you should be compensated by lower fees.
9. VENDOR REPUTATION AND STABILITY
Choose a platform from a reputable vendor with a proven track record of reliability and customer support. At times, it seems like every week a new vendor is setting up shop on the internet. Research the vendor's history, financial stability, and commitment to ongoing platform enhancements to ensure you're partnering with a trustworthy provider. If your explorations reveal the company is moving into a lot of new areas, it might be an indicator that they are drifting out of the business of supporting local church funding. On the other hand, you may want to pay attention if a vendor is bundling online giving with other services that might be helpful for your congregation.
10. BE BETTER INFORMED BY REPORTING AND ANALYTICS
You may find an online giving platform that has the bonus of gathering information about the giving patterns of your online donors. While this may be something you’ve never thought about doing before, you could find it to be an enormous bonus. Comprehensive reporting tools are extremely helpful for tracking donations, understanding giving trends, and making informed decisions. It will not hurt to ask whether the platforms you are considering offer detailed analytics and customizable reports.
11. STAY CONNECTED WITH DONOR COMMUNICATION TOOLS
Effective donor engagement is crucial. Platforms with built-in communication tools (like automated thank-you messages and donation receipts) help in maintaining a positive relationship with contributors. That’s not to say that an automated message alone is an adequate response to someone’s first donation or their five hundredth. However, an instant notification is a great confirmation to donors that their gifts were received and appreciated!
12. SUPPORT AND TRAINING
The platform should provide robust customer support and training resources to ensure smooth operation and quick resolution of any issues. This is especially important for volunteer-led teams. You might also inquire whether there is a phone number (or live video option) when your staff or volunteer financial recorder runs into a problem. That makes a big difference when you run into a problem.
Here are a few more tips for choosing an online giving platform:
- Read reviews from other churches.
- Ask for recommendations from other pastors and finance leaders.
- Get a demonstration of the platform before you sign up.
- Make sure that the platform offers the features and functionality that your church needs.
- Resist the temptation to save a few dollars by making a long-term commitment.
By keeping in mind these considerations, you'll be well-positioned to select the ideal online giving platform that empowers your church to optimize contributions, enhance donor engagement, and achieve financial sustainability in the digital age. Remember, the right platform can transform your church's financial landscape, enabling you to focus on your core mission of presenting the love and compassion of Christ to your community and making disciples for the transformation of the world!
Ken Sloane is the Director of Stewardship & Generosity for Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church.