PunkbarbyO/shutterstock
PunkbarbyO/shutterstock

As fundraising returns plunge in the ongoing pandemic—with cultural organizations and institutions of higher education among those experiencing steep declines—churches and other faith-based organizations are doing surprisingly well, according to a new survey. That’s encouraging, but it also suggests a growing digital divide in fundraising, as the institutions that are thriving are those with the greatest tech savvy.

The research by Givelify, an online giving portal used by tens of thousands of places of worship, found that more than 55% of faith leaders reported that, since the onset of the health crisis, contributions have either stayed the same or increased. Of those, 26% reported moderate increases and another 5% said they had experienced a significant increase in donations during the health crisis.

That was the most surprising finding in the survey, said Walle Mafolasire, Givelify’s founder and chief executive. “We expected a negative financial impact, not that more than half would be doing the same or better.”

The best fundraising returns occurred among faith-based groups with robust online giving and communication options that include Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, which allows for live streaming of services and other communications for congregants and members who can no longer meet in person due to fear of spreading the virus.

Givelify’s pre-pandemic surveys found that faith groups with the three online giving and communication options had more than two times the donations reported by similar organizations without those online tools. During the pandemic, the advantage of digitally savvy organizations has swelled; they received more than five times the amount raised by organizations without the online tools.

The most recent survey was conducted in May with 308 donors to faith-based organizations and 418 leaders of faith-based organizations. Their responses were checked against data gleaned from Givelify’s database of more than 40,000 faith organizations that collectively have some 800,000 donors. Only 2% of the more than 300 donors surveyed said they had decreased their giving to faith organizations during the pandemic.

Not surprisingly, smaller congregations of less than 100 weekly attendees were more likely to lag behind in adopting digital fundraising tools. In addition to security fears and costs, nearly 54% of the faith leaders surveyed said that having an older, non-tech-savvy congregation was the main reason they had not adopted online fundraising and communication tools earlier.

“Smaller faith groups tend to be digital laggers,” said Nick Bhavsar, a Texas marketing consultant who designed and conducted the research for Givelify. “What’s cool with digital is that you can get your message to so many more people.”

As one faith-based leader in the survey said, “Our members are still faithfully giving, and we are also receiving donations from non-members who watch our services online now.” In another sign that faith-based groups are expanding their reach, the survey found that 20% of the donors surveyed gave to two or three faith-based organizations, not just one primary congregation.

The coronavirus is deepening the divide between digitally savvy faith groups and others that have lagged behind in adopting online fundraising tools, said Bhavsar. “Without COVID-19,” he added, “this wouldn’t have accelerated like it did.”

The survey results track with what we’ve heard anecdotally from fundraisers lately. The groups that are pivoting quickly to new digital strategies and can smoothly transition their fundraising to online platforms seem to stand the best chance of thriving during the crisis. Don Hasseltine, a senior consultant and vice president at the Aspen Leadership Group, recently told IP he expects this greater reliance on virtual fundraising is a glimpse into the future of the profession, a shift that he believes could have positive effects. But Givelify’s research does pose a potential dark side of this adaptation—that certain older or smaller institutions may struggle to keep up.

With the growing gap, many faith-based groups have been, as the survey said, “left behind because of fear…that their congregation would be unable to embrace online giving.”

Their concerns about congregations’ willingness to adjust are perhaps overblown, however. Among donors in the survey who said they were new to online giving since the pandemic, 52% said that digital giving is easier than putting money in a collection plate or writing a check, and another 11% said it’s about the same as how they’d donated before. Only 7% of donors said that contributing online is more difficult than how they gave before.

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