by Meredith McNabb
“I don’t know if we’ll keep doing it…afterwards,” is a line that keeps echoing in conversations from organizational and congregational leaders. Looking forward with hope to a post-pandemic horizon that permits safe, large, indoor gatherings, leaders are especially pondering which, if any, of the digital adaptations they’ve made might be worth retaining even when they’re no longer strictly necessary. From the perspective of mission advancement, there are a number of those digital adaptations that are actually essential to keep doing.
Digital giving options are here to stay. Particularly in the congregational context, but also for judicatory-level programs, offering digital giving options is a pivot that was overdue. Most non-congregational nonprofits had long since made the move, but concerns about costs, shyness about technology, and a sense that ‘our people won’t give that way’ had kept some faith communities from making the leap. In Lake Institute’s September 2020 “Covid-19 Congregational Study”, 27% of congregations reported not having had an online giving option prior to March 2020—although a third of those congregations had since added the option in the first six months of the pandemic.
Revisions to how those online gifts can be given may still be needed, with attention to the ease of use of one’s giving platform and some cost-benefit analysis around the features available, but a cumbersome or nonexistent way to make gifts online is a serious hindrance going forward. Congregations that had already established online giving report weathering limitations on in-person gatherings better than those that did not. Even when those limitations are lifted, digital giving options will remain important as an element of hospitality for one’s supporters who rarely deal with checks or cash as well as for those who find themselves at a distance from the place they wish to support with a gift.
Once travel and activities resume at full strength, many individuals are once again going to find themselves away and unable to attend in person the events of the congregations and organizations they value. For worship services in congregations, particularly, participants have a new normal experience of virtual attendance—Pew Research Center reports that nearly three-quarters of US adults who typically attend worship at least monthly did so online or on tv in the summer of 2020—and a third of US adults overall did so. Congregations and other nonprofits struggled valiantly to move swiftly to online forums for worship, for counseling, and even for fundraising gala events. While returning to in-person events is a priority for many, there’s a benefit to considering how online options can exist side-by-side, or how the online versions may even be preferable in some situations.
Vacationers, the ill and injured, students, and those deployed far from home can all preserve and deepen their relationships and engagement with the congregations and causes that are close to their hearts even when they are at a distance when there are efforts to put events online. Online classes and counseling cut out travel time for those whose commutes or home responsibilities would otherwise stand in the way. Even posting portions of events or clips of interviews or messages online can make a difference in sustaining and enhancing the linkages people already have—and they can help in inviting new people to get a taste of what the congregation or organization is all about. Some of the greatest leaps have already been made—the tripod and microphone have already been purchased!—and it would be a waste to set all of that digital engagement aside. The digital divide is real in the United States—but even back in 2019, 28% of Americans reported being online “almost constantly,” with another 45% reporting being online several times a day: our organizations and congregations shouldn’t abstain from engaging with people meaningfully in the digital space.
New Learning Worth Carrying Forward
Finally, religious nonprofit organizations and congregations have learned a lot (well beyond just learning how to mute on Zoom…), and the learning process itself, along with the self-discoveries unearthed, are well worth carrying forward:
- Unexamined traditions have had to be revisited, with rich blessings to be discovered and treasured in some of them, and practices that can be left behind without much cost in others—on one hand, high holy days aren’t the same without a crowd, and sacred spaces are valuable; on the other, not every meeting has to be in-person or last all day in order to accomplish what needs to get done.
- Staff and board leadership have discovered that their organizations are more nimble than they might have thought, and change sometimes can happen overnight, with positive and meaningful results.
- The gifts of faith organizations and their relevance for their communities are multi-layered—from physical facilities, to tangible assistance, to spiritual depth in difficult and challenging times—religious organizations matter to their members and their neighbors.
There is much to hope for in what might come “after” pandemic restrictions are no longer needed—but part of that hope is to carry forward the discoveries and the practices that can advance religious organizations’ missions in a changed and changing world.
Martha Quiroga, Director of Communications for Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio
While the pandemic has tremendously transformed how we interact with one another and the way we go about life, storytelling continues to be the method through which we are reminded of the importance of togetherness. At the heart of every digital strategy, apart from formulating productive policies such as post frequency that aid us to maintain a consistently responsive social media presence, is the story our communications ministry seeks to convey.
In order to be able to develop an effective and rhythmic communications platform it is essential to identify what our mission is and ensure that our message is shared and spread through every single outreach method. Throughout these months of uncertainty, our sisters have continued sharing their perspectives and unwavering faith with our community through blog posts found on our website. Through these brief reflections, those outside the Congregation are able to connect with the sisters in a distant yet meaningful manner.
Additionally, we have utilized these trying times as an opportunity to expand our understanding of our three social media platforms: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and engage with our followers in a more direct manner. Our goal remains to be as inclusive and welcoming as possible by making our posts bilingual and constantly interacting with our followers in the comments section by promptly addressing any question they might have. Fostering a sense of community within the realm of social media allows us to communicate with our followers the various aspects of Congregational life and the impact our sisters are having on the community and beyond that continue to go on despite the challenges set by the pandemic. It also provides us with the opportunity to engage with friends and potential benefactors by allowing them to see how the Congregation creates impactful change regarding current world issues. The use of social media then transforms from being the tool that allows our network to interact with the Congregation into a contemporary form of narration that goes hand in hand with the digital world in which we exist.
By making an effort to create engaging graphics and incorporate other forms of media, such as photography and digital art into our publications, we are able to convey, both literally and figuratively, the sisters’ persistent commitment to adapting to the everchanging crises affecting those who are most vulnerable by remaining in the frontlines to unquestionably defend and protect the rights of others.
Insights, a bi-weekly e-newsletter, is a resource for the religious community and fundraisers of faith-based organizations that provides:
- Reflections on important developments in the field of faith and giving
- Recommended books, studies and articles
- Upcoming Lake Institute events