Empty collection baskets are seen in a June 18 photo illustration. In today's digital age, some parishes are seeing a shift from parishioners making a weekly donation using an offertory envelope to "e-giving," electronic and automatic deductions from the ir bank account to help pay for the costs of running and maintaining the parish. CNS photo illustration/Bob Roller

'E-giving' making a positive difference in some parishes' offertories

By  Mark Pattison, Catholic News Service
  • June 24, 2012

WASHINGTON - For generations of Catholics, "E" has stood for envelope -- the Sunday offertory envelope.

In today's digital age, though, that "E" may be shifting to "e-giving," an electronic and automatic deduction from your bank account to help pay for the costs of running and maintaining the parish.

One company, Faith Direct, has said its client parishes are seeing revenue increases as high as 30 percent.

Our Sunday Visitor's Offertory Solutions subsidiary likewise estimates that parishioners who use its "Online Giving" option contribute up to 30 percent more than they would had they stuck with the envelope system.

Parishes contacted by Catholic News Service didn't offer numbers quite so rosy, but noticed a definite uptick in parishioner support via e-giving -- or at least an end to a steady erosion in collection dollars.

"Protestant churches are definitely doing this, and I would suggest, are far ahead of the Catholic community," said Brian Walsh, founder and president of Faith Direct in Alexandria, Va.

"The offertory itself has been part of the church for 2,000 years. We see this as a natural progression."

"Gifts are larger and we have seen growth," said Terry Poplava, director of sales and marketing for Offertory Solutions in Huntington, Ind. "It's a tool for contributions in and of itself. Credit card gifts are larger than your envelope gift. It's a more thoughtful pledge. People tend to be more thoughtful when they're using Online Giving."

Both firms offer wide flexibility but also an all-encompassing giving plan to include national collections, diocesan drives and parish initiatives, all found in the typical "second collection" in parishes.

Walsh said one critical difference with e-giving is that it makes deductions every single week, including weeks when the household isn't at Mass.

"The envelope system today, parishes are lucky to be getting maybe 38 weeks of consistent giving," he said.

If there's a profile to a successful e-giving parish, Walsh said, it's "more affluent, more education. The adoption rate is higher. But we've been able to demonstrate in rural parishes and parishes in cities, more ethnic parishes, we were able to move people over. I think the most important thing, and that's what we're really trying to promote within the church, is that they have to have a giving program -- and if they don't have it today, frankly, they have to have it tomorrow."

Poplava said in his three years of experience with Offertory Solutions offering Online Giving, "not everyone's ready to go online. Some of it's comfort level. Some do online banking, but not everyone's comfortable with church giving." Even in his own parish, he added, there's a struggle between "we're happy with what we're doing vs. embracing the new technology."

Walsh said one figure that surprised him was that "we have such a high percentage over the age of 60 who have moved to e-giving. That's a very interesting thing for us to see." He attributed it to the fact that "anybody that's on Social Security has to get their payment electronically now," making them more comfortable with the e-giving concept.

Laurie Whitfield, director of parish stewardship for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., said the diocese subsidized 47 parishes, about a third of its total, to join Faith Direct two years ago. Only two have dropped out since.

"Our results here were not exactly what we expected, but that's the result of the Northeast and the economy, our general location," Whitfield told CNS. Asked if e-giving stemmed a downturn, she replied, "We could say that."

She added, "The consistency of e-giving is where you get your increases. People think they go to Mass 52 weeks a year. The reality is that they don't, or they don't go to their home parishes 52 weeks a year. If you are on board with Faith Direct or some other e-giving service, it's guaranteed to be there. The increases that you get is due to the consistency of giving," citing increased by some parishioners between 30-50 percent.

"We've seen our income increase about 10 percent. What we've noticed is an 11 percent growth ahead of 2010, and 11 percent ahead of our budget," said Leanne Sutherland, business manager of St. Maria Goretti Parish in Arlington, Texas, which has used Faith Direct for nearly a year.

Faith Direct, according to Sutherland, has "a formula which basically states in a Catholic parish approximately 30 percent of your registered families are going to be your core giving families. We exceeded that immediately. ... More and more people do everything electronically. You pay your bills, you make your house payment that way, you make your car payment that way."

As to whether there may come a day with an envelope-less offertory, Offertory Solutions' Poplava said, "I've gone from thinking it might be fairly soon to thinking that it might not be fairly soon. Generationally that might change. But I think we're at least a generation away from thinking it's going to change. The envelope doesn't have to go away. If the church thinks about it as an important strategy collections are out of sight, out of mind.

"You can convey other information in the envelope packet. It's a direct-mail packet. You can add a letter from the pastor, you can add pamphlets, you can add other information in addition to the envelope itself. If you let it go and you don't thank people for using it and you don't instruct people on using the envelope and instruct people (instead) in using Online Giving, then the envelope will go away."

"I think our church is a little bit slow to change," said Faith Direct's Walsh. "You have a system that's been in place for 70 years, the envelope system, and that's what people are used to and grew up with, and that's most of the population and I think it's the churches themselves that are slow to adapt."

So what existed before the offertory envelope?

"It was basically coins," Walsh said, "and then before that the traditional offertory (was) wheat and grain and livestock."

None of which, it must be noted, you can transmit online, much less stuff into an envelope.

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