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No cash when the collection plate arrives? No problem

Some churches now allow members to contribute with credit cards. The Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston

How much cash do you have in your wallet right now? If your answer’s not much, you’re not alone.

More people are going cashless these days as technology makes it easier to move money around. That’s bad news for most churches that still get the bulk of their donations in cash or checks, but more of them are trading their collection baskets for digital devices. 

The Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston is the mother church of the city’s Catholic Archdiocese and the building costs a lot to maintain. “We’re looking at maybe $1.5 million to keep it from falling in outside,” says Father Kevin O’Leary, rector of the cathedral.

Then there’s the free clinic, the food pantry, school programs for low-income kids. The church still collects most of its donations in baskets on Sundays in cash or checks, but O’Leary says his congregation is getting younger, and the way parishioners give is changing.

“People carry less and less cash, myself included,” he explains. “Credit cards are used for everything, and I think, really, it is the reality in the near future if not the present.”

Just inside the main entrance of the cathedral I ran into Joey LaMartina, who stopped by the gift store. He tries to get to church every Sunday. “I will go to like a Walgreens or somewhere to pick up some cash before I go to church just because I oftentimes will find myself showing up here and realizing I don’t have any cash on me,” LaMartina admits.

Enter the digital collection kiosk. The cathedral installed the touch-screen unit in December, mounted on a shelf, under a big stained-glass window. Now tourists and parishioners like LaMartina can use it to make donations with a credit or debit card, any day of the week.

“If I didn’t have cash on me I would absolutely do that,” he says. “I personally didn’t even know that this was something that exists.” 

The company that makes the kiosks, SecureGive, says a learning curve is normal. “You know sometimes it takes, you know four or five months just for the congregation to kind of understand, first off that it’s even there and to realize what it’s there for,” explains Stuart Baker, director of business development.

Baker says the kiosks usually pay for themselves in a few months. They start at $1,500, plus a set-up cost and a $40 monthly licensing fee. About 900 churches are using them nationwide and Baker says sales have tripled since the company rolled out an iPad version last fall.

Some models print receipts for people to put in the collection basket so they don’t feel guilty when it passes by. Those with smartphones can use mobile apps to donate right from the pew.

Most churches still use collection plates, but each year more offer some way for people to give electronically. Brian Kluth studies religious philanthropy for an annual “State of the Plate” survey. He says over 40 percent of churches now accept donations online, through kiosks or other digital methods -- a 10 percent bump from four years ago, and the percentage of people who give electronically is going up too.

“We are in a world where it’s not about the methodology that people give, not even the frequency, but being faithful,” Kluth says. “I encourage churches to give them any opportunities they can to help them be faithful, and if people can do that electronically, then help them to do that.”

Some churches don’t want people in debt donating with credit cards, and some philanthropy researchers say kids might not donate as adults if the don’t see their parents putting money on the collection plate.

On the upside, Kluth says e-giving tends to be more consistent than cash, like online bank transfers that go through even when a donor skips church. 

At the cathedral in Boston, Father O’Leary thinks e-donors are more generous than those in his flock who still carry cash. “I think people feel freer to use their credit card,” he says. “If you have to go into your wallet and say, should I give $2 or $5, and nobody knows my name, you might give the $2, but who knows.”

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