Ask Ken: What Software Should We Buy?
By Ken Sloane
Q: We are looking for a computer software package to help our church keep track of members and their giving. Does the United Methodist Church have a software package that you recommend for local churches?
A: I get this question a lot. I wish there was a software package I could point to and say, "This is the one!" but there is no official UM Church Management Software. I also wish I had the resources (and time) to try all the software packages that are out there to give an informed opinion on which one is better than the others. I'll keep dreaming about that one.
These days it is hard for many churches to think about spending money on anything that isnt broken, burning, bleeding or leaking.
We pride ourselves as United Methodists in being connectional: individual local churches, working side-by-side with other congregations in districts and annual conference, and making an impact around the world as one global connection. You might think there would be one denominational standard software that would let our computers talk to each other and out to the larger church. Well, it’s not here yet.
So not being able to give a recommendation of a particular product, I can offer two things that might help:
- an opinion on what things might be important to consider when looking at or comparing software packages,
- Embracing the technology of the "digital village" in which we live, I will crowdsource the question through a Contribution Software Survey. If you have church software and an opinion, I would love for you to click on the link and take the quick survey.
What to look for in a software solution for recording and tracking contributions:
How easy is this software to use? I list this first because I’m aware that often churches will look at price first. While cost is important, I don’t think it should be the driving factor.
My first caution is this: a program that is too hard to learn will limit the pool people who are able to step into the role of Financial Secretary, Treasuer, Membership Secretary or Church Administrator. If technical proficiency and an adaptability to a steep learning curve for your software becomes a pre-qualification of someone accepting a new role in the church office, you will have headaches when a change is needed.
My second caution: Managing your church contributions (or cash flow, or membership data) in a software architecture that only one person in the congregation can master automatically puts that person into a place of power. It may also interfere with our Disciplinary requirements for segregation of duties and adequate controls over those who have responsibilities over finances.
Test drive any software you are considering, and do so with a group of people of varying experience. If the software does what you need it to, and it is easy to use and intuitive, you may have a winner.
Be sure to inquire about updates, getting support when there are problems, and how those are delivered.
Many of the software packages today integrate well with other programs, and not just modules from their own creators. Can this software "talk" with other programs that we use? Can we export data from our contribution database to Excel to make a report? If we update an address in our membership records will it also update our contribution records? Can we export data to mail merge thank you letters and giving statements to our donors?
Another integration concern comes along when your church has a vendor for online giving. Is there a way to automatically import the contributions someone has made electronically (online or by electronic funds transfer) or will those have to be entered into this software manually? For example, VANCO Payments Solutions (who has a long relationship with United Methodist churches) offer’s clients direct download into more than 50 church software packages.
Along the same line as integration, is the capacity for expansion. Right now you might only be looking for a program that will let you enter contributions and print quarterly reports of donor giving. Down the line, you may be looking for more. Can we add membership records at some point? Financial accounts and tax reporting? Is there an expansion that would help us manage pre-school enrollment? Finding software that can grow to meet your needs is important. Can you get demo versions of other add-ons to see if they meet your needs?
There was a while when we couldn’t go a week without some news story about a trusted company losing customers personal information from their databanks. Cyber security is in the news almost every day. Security is an important subject to investigate. Is your data stored on the church’s computer or on a remote server (or both). While it seems that many of the church software programs being offered store data “in the cloud” there are still some that store data on the hard drive of the church’s computer. In either circumstance, it’s wise to ask the question, “Is it backed up, encrypted, and is it stored off site away from the place where it is primarily accessed? Cloud storage is a fine, inexpensive backup plan when the files are primarily on the church computer. Can the software be set to back up your data automatically?
This is an important consideration for most churches. Software companies invest a lot of money in developing great software tools, and recoup those costs through sales. The more specialized the software, the smaller the market for recovering the cost of creation and updating of software. This is why a general-purpose software package (like Quicken, for example) can be so much less expensive than a program written specifically for local church finance. It is not a bad idea to see if there are some broad market packages that might meet the need of your local church as you start your software search.
If your church has a smaller membership base, it would be worth checking our some church software options that are free (yes, free is good). Some of these will have a fee once you pass a certain number of records. Here's a great blog post that compares some of these options.
As you consider the price of a software investment, inquire about the company’s policy/pricing regarding updates. Updates are unavoidable. Your PC or Mac operating system is updated regularly, and your church software will need to be tweaked to match new OS features and security fixes.
Many vendors are offering software on a subscription basis, and this is something worth considering. In some ways, it's like the car-shopping decision, “Do I rent or buy?” Smaller monthly payments may add up in the long run, but it does relieve you of costly updates and other worries. And let’s face it, in four years nobody is going to want to buy your old church software!
These days it is hard for many churches to think about spending money on anything that isn’t broken, burning, bleeding or leaking. That’s a fact. Good church management software isn’t frivolous; it can make your work better and smarter. It can help you thank your donors more graciously; it can help you manage your employees and volunteers more efficiently; it can help you manage your finances more accurately. All of which will help you be better stewards of what God has entrusted to you. I hope this helps you decide what’s right for your church!