Digital donations

Members of Seacoast Church can make their offering on a kiosk that sits in the lobby of the Mount Pleasant sanctuary.

Inside some Lowcountry Seacoast churches sit kiosks that look similar to automated teller machines or ATMs, but they’re not dispensing cash. Instead, they represent a change among some churches locally and nationwide.

“We’ve tried to find different ways for people to give,” said Glenn Wood, Seacoast’s pastor of administration.

The kiosks accept digital donations. The method is one of several e-giving options provided by Seacoast for its thousands of churchgoers. From a text messaging service to a smartphone application or donations through the church website, Wood said they are embracing the new trends.

Other church leaders, however, worry about what’s lost in the replacement of the collection plate with the digital donation.

Wood said it’s a matter of practicality.

“We need to find ways to accommodate people,” said Wood. “I think the shift toward electronic giving in whatever manner that is, is going to continue.”

Several nationwide studies are supporting that claim. A 2014 study by the website Bankrate.com showed two out of five consumers carry less than $20 in cash on a daily basis. Nonprofit groups are noticing that shift. According to the 2014 M + R Benchmark Study, an analysis of data of more than 50 nonprofit groups, online giving among study participants increased 14 percent over its 2012 totals. The study also revealed more gifts are being donated online and in the form of regular monthly giving.

Several Lowcountry churches are offering online giving options, including some of the state’s most historic churches such as St. Michael’s Church in downtown Charleston, which allows church members to donate online or through a smart phone app called “Church Life.”

“I think it’s beneficial,” said Victoria Vazquez, St. Michael’s director of communications. “Because a lot of people don’t have checkbooks anymore; a lot of people don’t have cash anymore and they may forget to bring something like that on Sunday when they come.”

Wood said Seacoast’s e-giving doubled in four years. In 2010 about 20 percent of their donations were done online. By the end of 2014, he said online giving was up to 45 percent. They also saw fewer people writing checks, a decrease of about 25 percent since 2010.

Last year, Seacoast launched its latest form of e-giving, a text-to-give program. Wood said after filling out some information online, a donation is as easy as sending the dollar amount through a text message.

Some churches, though, are sticking to traditional methods: passing the collection plate during the worship service. Dr. Vance Polley, the pastor of Sunrise Presbyterian Church on Sullivan’s Island, said they do not accept online donations.

“More churches may find themselves having to do it, but the question is ‘What gets lost?’ What gets lost is the physical presence in the sanctuary and giving in a response to our gratitude,” said Polley. “Dedicating yourself in the offer is a rededicating of one’s self. You are responding in a physical way to what you’ve been hearing.”

Wood said Seacoast has worked to keep the act of giving from being lost in their service, despite the absence of a collection plate.

“We have a response time after the sermon where you can seek prayer, pray for someone and the other one is the act of giving as an act of worship,” he said. “There’s still incorporation into the service.”

Polley said his church isn’t seeing fewer donations because of their lack of e-giving options. His churchgoers are typically regular visitors who are accustomed to the church’s traditional giving methods. However, Polley said he can understand the benefits of the practicality of e-giving for larger churches. Polley also cited the costs associated with credit card and other e-giving vendor fees as reason to stick with the collection plate.

“It’s a trade-off. It’s part of the cost of offering multiple ways for people to give,” said Wood. “I would rather a nonprofit group get 90 percent than zero because they didn’t decide to give at all.”

Staff writer Deanna Pan contributed to this story.