Most people would probably agree that 2020 hasn't been the best year ever. For faith-based organizations, it's been a time of constant change, uncertainty, and major challenges.
In my work with faith-based organizations, I've identified five major challenges:
- Low member engagement
- Lack of financial stability
- Difficulty providing community services
- Trouble attracting new members
- Underutilization of current staff
With so much changing, it's also an opportunity to start embracing the solutions that your faith-based organization needs to succeed.
These solutions won't just help with pandemic-related challenges; they may also address challenges your organization has faced for years.
1. Solving the Member Engagement Problem
Faith-based organizations originally saw the coronavirus pandemic as a temporary disruption. A few virtual services and things would be normal again. But, while some organizations have gone back to something near normal, it doesn't mean that everyone feels safe attending again. It may seem impossible to focus on engagement when you don't have your members in front of you.
Focus on solutions that address both online and offline engagements. For instance, some remote services leave viewers less engaged, while other organizations have seen faith-based organization app sign-ups skyrocket by as much as 60 percent in order to worship remotely. The key is to involve your members and get creative.
While your organization doesn't necessarily need an app, some organizations choose to create apps to provide an alternative to their website. For instance, an app might include a saved login for easier online giving or notifications of upcoming events, both online and offline.
Here are some innovative solutions to consider.
- Reach out to members beyond services. An Episcopal church in Atlanta has created a special online worship series packed full of music, scripture, personal reflections, and a mini-sermon that all fits into less than 30 minutes. Use social media, your website, text messaging, your app, and any other platform to reach out to your members.
- Focus on what's current. It's simple but effective. If members feel your services are too dated, they won't feel the message is relevant to them. Instead, adjust services to mix faith with current issues that people are facing. This creates a connection and engagement.
- Ask members where you're lacking. It's a humbling question, but ask it anyway. Show that you want to provide the engagement they crave.
- Create a unique video series. Engage a younger audience with short videos, much like TikTok does. Or, go longer with 10- to 20-minute videos (which are gaining popularity on YouTube) targeting members' specific needs.
- Connect with members on the social platforms they already use. If the people in your community are on Facebook and Instagram, interact with them there. Make sure these connections are not just promotional. The goal is to create two-way conversations. Host a Facebook Live event and respond directly to your members' questions in real time.
- Ask members to get involved. Let your teens create faith-based TikTok videos. Or have families perform skits on YouTube or other social media platforms. Host live talent shows to bring your members together, even when you're apart.
- Have a sense of humor. Humor brings people together. It helps people relax. It also makes services far more engaging and memorable. This even encourages members to invite more people, both online and offline.
- Create interactive services. Would you rather talk to or with your members? Make your members an active part of services. Encourage questions via text, a dedicated Microsoft Teams channel, or a community forum, or even through your social media during services. Ask for real-time participation outside of just praying. You can do this for in-person and virtual services.
Many of these tactics can be supported with solutions included in the Microsoft 365 bundle. For example, Teams might be a great fit for your congregation's live-streaming needs. Check out TechSoup's recent blog post on keeping your congregation more involved to learn more.
2. Ensuring Financial Stability
Less attendance means less financial stability. With people opting to stick with virtual services for convenience and safety, attendance is abysmally low. Yet, most of your donations probably come from people attending in person. In fact, the Catholic Archdiocese of New York has seen donations drop by 50 percent. On a more promising note, a recent study by DickersonBakker found that 85 percent of donors to faith-based organizations believe that their giving will stay the same or increase throughout 2020.
Even with that news, it may be time to adopt a new strategy. To ensure financial stability and bounce back from coronavirus lows, try the following:
- Hosting special events online while encouraging giving, such as community fundraising events where a percentage goes to helping your organization and part to the community (even nonmembers may donate to help the community)
- Offering secure online giving on your website or app
- Focusing on your engagement strategy (people are more likely to give if they enjoy what your organization is offering)
- Providing free resources, but asking for an optional donation (activities for kids, family worship resources, e-books, etc)
- Detailing your financial needs (break them down in an easy-to-understand list, including necessary expenses)
- Offering targeted giving options (donors choose which area their donation goes to in your organization)
Additionally, it may be time to reevaluate your faith-based organization's budget. Make sure you are taking full advantage of products and services available to you through TechSoup to reduce your technology costs. For instance, reducing paid marketing to focus more on free methods can save you hundreds or even thousands monthly. Or better yet, take advantage of Google Ad Grants, where Google will give qualifying nonprofits $10,000 per month in free advertising on their search engine. You can check out TechSoup's Google Ad Grants seminar series to find out everything you need to know to get started.
3. Discovering New Ways to Provide Community Services
When you think about providing community services, you think about interacting with people face-to-face. The coronavirus pandemic has changed all that. It's not so easy to just visit your members in person or gather a group together. But community services matter when it comes to providing member engagement and attracting new members. The pandemic has actually created a variety of new ways faith-based organizations can help their local community, and the needs in your community have never been more pressing.
These are some new ways to help:
- Open the church for remote learning. Many students don't have access to the Internet. If you have the capabilities, open your church to a set number of students daily. Raise money to provide lunches or partner with local businesses to help fund meals for students. It's a strategy many organizations are currently employing.
- Offer virtual resume services. As of October 2020, 19 percent of Americans have been unemployed for over 27 weeks. Offering them assistance in gaining a new job is the perfect way to help the community.
- Reach out to those living alone or having trouble adapting to less social activity. List a number on signs around your community for people to call if they need to talk to someone. Ask members and staff to volunteer to take calls during certain hours. You can even schedule visits where you can employ social distancing measures.
- Shop for those at risk. Many seniors don't have access to the Internet or have any idea how to use it if they did have it. This can make purchasing groceries and other necessary items difficult since they may be afraid to go shopping in public for health safety reasons. Have your members volunteer to shop for them.
- Hold online or drive-thru events. Use the donations to help buy groceries or pay vital bills for community members who've lost jobs.
The keys to making community service projects run smoother are effective volunteer management and the technology to keep track of everything. You can even create a calendar system for volunteers to sign up to teams remotely and check in while performing their tasks. Solutions like Microsoft 365 allow for easy communication and collaboration, while your organization can create your own private site with SharePoint for sharing information and project details and collaborating.
4. Developing Better Ways to Attract New Members
This one may be one of the most daunting challenges during and even after the pandemic. According to a Pew Research Center poll from July 2020, 33 percent of Americans are attending worship services online, while only 12 percent are attending in person. Out of Americans who were attending at least monthly before the pandemic, 72 percent are attending monthly online, while 33 percent are attending in person.
While a trend toward online worship is expected right now, in-person attendance may rise as people begin to feel safer attending in person. However, during the pandemic, your members may have watched more than your own services. In fact, the Pew poll found that 29 percent of those watching online worship services also watched services from other organizations. The good news is many places have seen a rise in attendance, by both members and nonmembers, with online services. So people are still interested in worshiping.
The solution to attracting new members comes down to engagement. Right now, you're competing to be the standout in a sea of thousands of other organizations providing services and resources online. It takes a multistep approach to change how you traditionally attracted members.
- Enlist your current members to attract new members. Engage them and provide them with resources to share, such as videos, social media posts, blog posts, engaging worship services online, and more.
- Stay active online. Post on your chosen social media networks regularly.
- Improve your organization's website. Your web presence is where most people will form their first impression.
- Create high-quality, useful content that goes beyond marketing.
- Create an online membership area on your organization's website. People can become virtual members, making them feel more connected, even when they're not together.
- Provide new-member resources on your website. At the end of every virtual service, direct any newcomers to check those out. Include ways to give, how to join, and the benefits your particular organization offers.
The reason to stay active online and offer great content is that people will share it, attracting more people.
5. Bringing Your Staff into New Roles
The coronavirus pandemic led to millions of Americans across all industries being laid off or furloughed. Faith-based organizations haven't been immune to this problem. Your staff may not be needed for their traditional roles. But, there are new roles for them to fill. Here are a few ways to utilize your staff:
- Community advocacy: Create and manage community service projects
- Addressing member needs: Let staff talk to members online, help with shopping, and more.
- Social media management: Let your staff help create a more active social media community.
- Content creation: Engagement equals more content, so assign staff different content creation roles.
- Increasing interactivity: Assign staff to filter and answer questions online during services.
- Teaching: Host virtual classes to help the community learn new skills and faith-based study as well.
The solutions to your faith-based organization's challenges are changing. But, as you adapt, your organization will grow.
About the Author
Thomas Costello is a nonprofit marketer and host of the REACHRIGHT Podcast. He is the founder of REACHRIGHT Studios, a digital marketing firm that helps churches and ministries reach more people online.