The First Unitarian Church, Oakland, CA (284 members), used to have a cash flow problem in the summer. As Church Administrator, Jay Roller, explains it: "People would go away in the summer and forget to pay their pledges."
Seasonal sag is a perennial church problem. Oakland solved it with plastic. It started asking friends and members to pay their pledges with credit cards. Now 40 percent of the church's pledge income comes in on credit cards. The church's annual pledge cards even encourage that option.
A small but growing number of congregations permit the use of credit cards to pay for pledges, church auction and bookstore purchases, and capital campaigns, says Jerry King, a Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Fundraising Consultant.
Card companies commonly take three or more percent of the amount pledged, but the figure is negotiable and also varies with volume. If your bank won't give you a low rate, ask a member involved in nonprofit management to bring in periodicals from that field, which usually have ads from bank card companies offering rock bottom rates.
The UU (Unitarian Universalist) Church, Nashua, NH (307), has accepted credit cards for pledging for five years. "It's really helped the cash flow," says Barbara Koumjian, Church Administrator. "We have guaranteed income every month." But it also takes time, since card payments are not automatic. Someone has to spend an hour or two on the phone, calling in the card numbers and amounts to the bank each month and chasing down those few people with expired cards or who changed card companies. Some church office managers say credit card payments involve more work. Others say it's no worse than managing a flow of checks. Things to consider:
- Require that all cards be processed the same day each month to ease bookkeeping.
- Mistakes can be costly. If a card is overlooked one month it means asking the donor to increase future payments or send a check.
- Pledges may be larger if members make monthly payments.
At the UU Fellowship of Bainbridge Island and North Kitsap, WA (64), thirteen pledges come in on cards at a cost of three percent plus a $20 annual fee. "I've got to be organized to not make mistakes," says Treasurer, Mary Romeo. "What makes this worthwhile is that we get 100 percent of the pledges (minus the card fee), and they come in regularly in the summer. And our members like it."
Murray UU Church, Attleboro, MA (200), invited members to use credit cards this year, but only got four takers and won't continue. "It added quite a bit of work," says Evelyn Sanford, Church Administrator.
Card usage is too expensive for most congregations, says Wayne Clark, the UUA's congregational fundraising services director, and requires too much record-keeping. Instead, he recommends bank drafts (also known as electronic fund transfers), a monthly automatic withdrawal process that involves little or no cost.
Should churches be encouraging credit card debt? "We have to assume that people are responsible adults," says King, who also supports the Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT) option. Rev. Terry Sweetser, a fundraising consultant to UU congregations, says, "Research shows people who are willing to give by credit card are generally more generous than those who don't. But the system does take effort to set up and use and we lose a cut depending on volume. It may only be worth it if you have a lot of people doing it or your congregation has another reason to accept credit cards."