Smartphone Giving, Part 1: 'What's In Your Digital Wallet?'
By Ken Sloane
Part 1 of a 3-part series
When I started my position as Director of Stewardship at Discipleship Ministries (GBOD back then), I realized quickly that a key area of my focus would be leading churches toward digital giving. Most people were doing some part of their banking electronically, the number of checks being written was dropping by almost two billion each year, and many people were carrying a debit card instead of cash. I spent a lot of time and a lot of words trying to convince church finance leaders that offering electronic giving was worth the fees associated; I convinced some, but not all. In 2020, when the reality of a global pandemic and the danger of gathering for public worship became real for all of us, those churches that had offered electronic giving already had a better chance of weathering the COVID storm.
Right about that time, I began to hear about some churches inviting their donors to use phone apps like Venmo, Zelle, Cash App, ApplePay, and the mobile PayPal app for their weekly contribution. Though I haven’t found any research yet on the number of churches moving in this direction, it seems an appropriate time to take a closer look.
Smartphone apps for moving money digitally from one person to another – “peer-to-peer” is the term often used – have become an extremely popular alternative to carrying cash or a debit card, especially for the millennial generation. Venmo, Zelle, Cash App, and other similar apps would fall into that category. ApplePay, GooglePay, and PayPal are payment apps made popular through online shopping services like eBay and the Apple Store but are often used for peer-to-peer payment.
- Visit your favorite restaurant and spot a group of friends out for a meal. Odds are that when the check comes, there won’t be a pile of bills and coins as the diners ante up, but a flurry of smartphone activity as one person pays the tab and tip, and everyone else “Venmos” (yes, it is also used as a verb) their share to the payer.
- Send your graduate off to college, and chances are that before too long, a financial crisis will occur – an unexpected auto repair or some other emergency expense. Why send a check or run to Western Union when a Zelle payment can instantly move money from your account to the student’s phone?
- My wife and I are in a group with three other couples who enjoy our city’s performing arts center season of Broadway shows each year. To secure our eight seats together, I have the subscription billed to my credit card, and the other couples send me their share using ApplePay, Venmo, and Zelle – with no checks to handle or deposit!
Yes, these apps can make some tasks easier in our wonderful digital world – but are these good options for your church members to use for their tithes and offerings?
If your church is considering offering a mobile cash app to its giving options (or if you already have), this series of articles is for you. In each of the three parts, I will try to explore a few questions; but I invite you to join in the conversation. After each article is posted to our website, there will be a link to the UMC Stewardship Facebook page, so readers may share their own experiences or questions.
IS THIS WHAT OUR DONORS NEED AND DESIRE?
This is a great question to ask: is this an expressed need, or is it a perceived need? In other words, are donors seeking this as a way to give, or is someone suggesting it because he or she thinks it’s a need (or we want to have all the “latest and greatest”)?
I will often say to churches, “More options are better than fewer options.” However, if your church has a vendor who provides you with a platform for electronic giving, it might already include an option or app for mobile giving. Does your congregation know all the helpful options your current giving platform provides? Using your existing platform might be better for security purposes and provide more accessible reporting of donor contributions.
Sometimes church leaders think that there is a “silver bullet” that will overcome some obstacle to giving of which the church has not been aware. In truth, if you don’t have people in your church coming up to you and saying, “I wish the church would offer me a way to give via my Venmo account,” there probably isn’t a great need to offer it.
IS IT THE BEST DIRECTION FOR OUR CHURCH?
Most of the people I speak with who work in the world of funding churches and nonprofits agree that the “gold standard” for digital giving is electronic recurring giving. This should be the goal: to get as many donors as possible to use an automated process. Electronic recurring giving can happen easily through an online giving platform (Vanco, PushPay, Tithely, and many others) or through people using an “auto-pay” function offered by their banks. This may be a consideration when offering other digital ways for members to give their tithes and offerings. Will this option help move them toward programed recurring giving or further from it?
Back before any of us were born, when the first pledge or estimate of giving card was introduced, the goal was for donors to set themselves a pattern of regular giving that would enable an annual gift at an amount they had determined in advance. With electronic recurring giving, that goal hasn’t changed. Additionally, many churches will ask their supporters for other, more spontaneous gifts: a love offering, a mission project, a trip for the youth group, purchasing books for a Bible study, or other special appeals. These gifts might be places where giving through Zelle or Venmo could have real benefit. Remember that many of the online giving platforms also offer options for app giving as well as “text-to-give,” so setting up Venmo, Cash App, or Zelle giving might be redundant, depending on what your vendor provides.
We will mention additional factors that might inform this question in upcoming articles.
WILL IT ENCOURAGE GREATER GENEROSITY?
This is a tough question, and it may have to be interpreted based on your local church and context. At this point, there don’t seem to be enough churches receiving gifts in this way to provide quantitative data. Venmo was designed to provide a payment method between individuals in smaller amounts and with lesser frequency. It is particularly convenient and cost-effective when you have money already in your Venmo account. In my research for these articles I noticed the statistics that Zelle, with only 75% of the number of users as Venmo, moved 114% more dollars. Does Zelle’s “bank-to-bank” design provide more comfort around moving larger amounts? I would again suggest that providing a user-friendly way for a donor or family to set up recurring electronic gifts, along with the proper resources for determining what level of giving is in tune with their growth in discipleship, would yield greater growth in generosity.
DOES IT PROVIDE THE BEST DONOR EXPERIENCE?
It should be relatively easy for those who wish to give generously to your church to do so. Venmo, Cash App, Zelle, and even PayPal and ApplePay are easy to use, but providing a positive user experience for donors is about more than ease of use. When someone goes online to give to your church, the user experience might include:
- A clear picture of your church and its mission.
- Stories (with images, maybe video) of how you are accomplishing that mission.
- Worship schedules, directions, and links for streaming worship.
- The opportunity to designate the gift in memory or honor of someone
- Information about church staff and leaders, church programs, ways to get involved, and much more.
- An easy way to request that someone from church contact the donor.
- Venmo, Zelle, Cash App, ApplePay, PayPal, or the others give you very little control over the experience and provide little space to tell your stories. Finally, there needs to a be mechanism for digital givers to get a timely acknowledgment and a thank you!
In part 2 of this series, we’ll dig a little deeper into three popular cash apps and explore what each might be able to offer to help fund your church’s mission and ministry.
To comment on the article, you may do so on the UMC Stewardship Facebook page.
Ken Sloane is the Director of Stewardship & Generosity for Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church.