When working with a 2,000-year-old institution, there is a tendency to think that there is nothing new under the sun. This way of thinking is often magnified in a parish setting where staff and volunteers have served for many years and are accustomed to working with limited and often antiquated resources. Many parishes still rely exclusively on the bulletin and pulpit announcement to communicate with parishioners, but there are a variety of newer technologies available at relatively low cost that can dramatically enhance the effectiveness of parish communications, particularly during a fundraising campaign.
Some of these tools include email systems that can send thousands of personalized messages in a few seconds, electronic survey forms, recorded phone messages, and mass text message services. These resources make it possible for a pastor who might have hundreds or even thousands of families in his parish to engage every parishioner in a dynamic way.
As parish leaders take the first steps to implementing these programs, they should bear in mind that technology is not meant to supplant personal encounters; it is meant to facilitate them. By incorporating new tools into a parish’s communications and fundraising plans, pastors and volunteers can reach out to a large audience of parishioners in ways that are both faster and more personal than previously imagined.
When parish leaders consider the possibility of adopting new tools to engage parishioners, they generally focus on three challenges:
- How will we implement something new with our limited technological background?
- Once we do set something up, who will manage the system?
- Will the results be worth the investment of time and money?
The first step to overcoming these challenges is very often simply being open to trying something new. The second step is sitting down with someone with deep knowledge of these tools and best practices to gain an understanding of how to move forward. From there, the technology is actually simpler than one might think. If someone can use a smart phone, type into a Word document, and make a list in Excel, he or she can likely manage one of these resources.
Case Study: Saint Rose of Lima in Newtown, CT
During a recent parish capital campaign at Saint Rose of Lima Church in Newtown, Connecticut, CCS worked with the pastor, parish staff, and campaign volunteers to design a plan that introduced new communications tools to a traditional parish fundraising model. This plan enabled the campaign, We Stand With Christ: An Invitation to Faith & Fellowship, to engage over a third of Saint Rose’s 3,600 families in a personal and dynamic way in less than five months’ time.
At first, the pastor, Msgr. Robert Weiss, was reluctant to try these new tools in large part because he was unfamiliar with them. However, Msgr. Weiss quickly recognized that to engage such a large parish in a short period of time would require some new ideas. Saint Rose had some experience with Constant Contact, an email automation platform, but they used Constant Contact almost exclusively to communicate with religious education and youth group families and not to communicate with the parish at large.
During a campaign feasibility study, the Saint Rose staff collected more than 2,500 parish email addresses and 4,195 phone numbers (including 1,358 cell phone numbers) from the parish database and through an in-pew update of contact information.
“The online feasibility study enabled us to receive responses from over 900 parishioner families, the results of which gave us a clear direction for the campaign,” said Msgr. Weiss. “Tracking requests, pledges, gifts, and even those not able to participate in the campaign helped move the campaign forward in a very orderly fashion.”
With this list, the parish was well-prepared to implement some new communications vehicles.
During Saint Rose’s feasibility study, in addition to 76 one- on-one meetings, nearly 900 parishioners were able to offer their feedback on the parish’s campaign plans through an electronic survey. Msgr. Weiss sent a personal invitation to every parishioner for whom the parish had an email address, and about 35 percent of those invited participated in the e-survey.
Following the feasibility study, Saint Rose launched its capital campaign with a working goal of $5 million. From the early stages of the campaign, the parish made good use of its Constant Contact account to engage volunteers, initiate personal visits, and communicate with the broader parish community. Msgr. Weiss emailed parishioners who had indicated that they would be willing to serve as campaign volunteers to invite them to an orientation, and he sent a preparatory email to each family who would receive a call from a volunteer about a personal visit.
“Emails were sent as a way to educate and engage parishioners throughout the campaign. To have access to lists of donors, pledge and gift information, and to be able to track payments has made the project move forward in a very positive way,” said Msgr. Weiss.
Using email during the quiet phase of the campaign dramatically improved the speed of communications. Rather than waiting for letters to arrive by mail and then hoping they had been read, campaign leadership knew immediately when an email had been read, and a volunteer could follow up with that parishioner within hours, not days. This strategy allowed Msgr. Weiss and campaign volunteers to have a personal visit with over 330 parishioners before announcing the campaign.
During the public phase, Msgr. Weiss sent regular updates on campaign progress, and he used targeted email messages to encourage those who had not yet replied to make their pledge. He was even able to include a direct link in the email to pledge online.
Twice during the public phase of the campaign, Msgr. Weiss recorded a message that was broadcasted to every parishioner’s phone number. Recording the message itself was as simple as dialing a phone number and leaving a voicemail, and the broadcasts proved extremely effective at encouraging parishioners to return their pledge card. About 30 percent of parishioners who were called answered live (the others received voicemail messages), and many commented on how much they appreciated the personal touch of hearing Msgr. Weiss’s voice.
Announcement Weekend Check-In
On the weekend Msgr. Weiss announced the campaign publicly, Saint Rose organized the distribution of personalized campaign materials after every Mass. This “old school” approach was enlivened with a “new school” twist: Saint Rose rented iPads for its volunteers to use an app called Zkipster to check in those parishioners who picked up their materials. Once checked in, parishioners automatically received an email thanking them for picking up their packet and encouraging them to return their pledge card by a certain date.
The tech resources for the weekend cost about $1,200, and by Sunday evening, Saint Rose had distributed personalized campaign materials to 626 parishioners. Of that group, 70 percent made a gift to the campaign, totaling $3.4 million. In fact, in just the 10 days following announcement weekend, Saint Rose raised about $1.5 million. Furthermore, those parishioners who received materials after Mass were 10 times more likely to make a gift to the campaign than those who received material through the mail.
Text Message Reminders
In the final days leading up to the parish’s in-pew commitment weekend, Msgr. Weiss sent a brief text message to every parishioner who had not yet made a pledge with a reminder to bring his or her pledge card to Mass that weekend. The ease and instantaneousness of text messaging allowed this message to be sent a few hours before the weekend’s first Mass. Over the course of commitment weekend, the text message reminder proved very effective: nearly four times as many parishioners brought their pledge card from home as those who filled out a generic card in the pew.
The use of new technologies during Saint Rose’s campaign enabled Msgr. Weiss and parish volunteers to communicate in a personal way to the vast majority of Saint Rose’s 3,600 parish families. Because the tools Saint Rose used were able to track in real-time who had received a message or made a pledge, communications could be further personalized based on whether a parishioner had already made a gift or was still considering a commitment.
These new tools enabled the campaign to proceed with speed and precision, and they helped to keep excitement high during the public phase of the campaign. Ultimately, Saint Rose exceeded its initial campaign goal by over $1 million, raising about $6.1 million on their $5 million working goal.
Moreover, by the close of Saint Rose’s campaign, both Msgr. Weiss and two parish staff members were exceedingly more familiar with the technological resources available to them. This experience enabled them to engage more effectively a small committee of parishioners who had formed to focus on enhancing the parish’s overall communications strategy. Partially inspired by the success of the campaign, Saint Rose is now working to develop a new parish website and to expand its social media presence.
Three First Steps for Any Parish
While the case study of Saint Rose’s campaign demonstrates how a parish can implement a comprehensive communications strategy to enhance its fundraising efforts, parishes can begin taking advantage of these new tools for a variety of purposes. Even if a parish is not preparing to launch a fundraising campaign, implementing these tools can facilitate broader parishioner engagement and potentially lay the groundwork for more personalized campaign communications down the road.
Here are three strategies that any parish with a list of phone numbers and email addresses can begin to implement immediately:
- Send a personalized email from the pastor or other parish leaders to all parishioners on a regular basis (weekly, biweekly, or monthly). Depending upon the frequency, the email might contain a spiritual reflection, a Q&A, an update on parish activities, or a witness from a parishioner.
- Record a message of gratitude from the pastor around Thanksgiving or the parish’s patronal feast and broadcast it to all parishioners’ phone numbers. Pastors who have tried this strategy have been overwhelmed by the positive response from their parishioners.
- Send a text message announcement before a special event to parishioners’ cell phone numbers. It might contain a reminder of the Christmas or Holy Week Mass schedule or encourage parishioners to attend a parish festival.
In a world where parishioners of every age are increasingly tech-savvy, parishes have much to gain by implementing new communications tools.
CCS Fundraising is a strategic consulting firm that partners with nonprofits for transformational change. To access our full suite of perspectives, publications, and reports, visit our insights page.
About the Author
Steven Picciano is an Executive Director with CCS. He has partnered with mission-driven organizations across the sectors of religion, healthcare, higher education, and social and human services to design and implement strategic fundraising initiatives. His areas of expertise include feasibility and planning studies, major capital campaigns, fundraising communications, and board recruitment. Steven serves on the Board of Directors of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and on the Advisory Board of the Neonatal Comfort Care Program at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.