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Using Software to Save Money
By: Besa Pinchotti

Times are tough for businesses and nonprofits around America, and churches are no exception.  Many congregations are cutting costs at the same time that more members are asking the church for help to make it through the economic downturn. 

Through these challenges, many churches continue to handle finances the old-fashioned way—check by check, writing down donations and deductions on a ledger or typing them into a spreadsheet.  In some cases, this is due to reluctance to spend money on software; in other cases, it is fear of change. Either way, churches are spending precious time and money on these efforts.

Karen Imler works in the business office of Vienna Presbyterian Church in northern Virginia, outside of Washington, DC.  The church uses software for payroll, accounts payable, and annual reports, among other functions. 

"As a church, you have to remember you look at all of your income as the widow's mite," she said. "This is sacrificial giving, and we have an obligation to monitor these donations wisely." 

Since first implementing the software, Imler and the other staff members who use it have become more efficient and more effective in handling donations given to the church. Imler attributes the software with helping to manage the church's human resources. 

"When I have a better software system, I can do all my payables in two hours instead of six," she said. "When those kinds of things are happening, you're using your people more efficiently. When people can work 20 hours instead of 30, that's a savings." 

But, that is only one of the benefits. Monthly treasurers' reports, which used to produce a week's worth of stress, are now just minutes away. 

"It's a nightmare to pull together a report that a committee will go over with a fine-tooth comb.  But, when every transaction you do goes straight to your general ledger and has a report component, now all you have to do is click," Imler said. "The best part is that the report is accurate. It does away with all the dual systems, it does away with double and triple entry of things, and it catches the mistakes. They jump right out at you."

Regardless of a church's size and needs, there is a software solution to fit any budget. 

Bill Hurd, the business manager at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Del Rey, Florida, remembers making the switch from pegboard check writing. The church went from having 11 separate checking accounts to two. Now, Hurd says, they can see the church's financial status much more quickly and, more importantly, they can react immediately when it doesn't look good. And, the church's year-end audit is a breeze. 

"It used to take forever to get things into a consistent format to compare apples to apples," he said. "Now, preparing 2008's information will take a day rather than two weeks. In that respect, it's a phenomenal timesaver."

The church also uses their software's bulk e-mail tool, which has helped keep them at the front of members' minds and has assisted them in increasing donations for their e-giving program. 

"The vast majority of people who do the e-giving are over 65—which totally surprised me," he said. 

And, Hurd says, this should ease the fears of many churches worried about implementing new software because of concerns that older volunteers may not be able to use it. 

"I would say that anytime you change a system, it's going to require quite a bit of work on the front side, because you'll have to enter your membership database and accounting balance, but, in the long run, it's time extremely well spent," he said.

At Imler's church in Vienna, Virginia, training is an ongoing process, but the bulk of it was done at the beginning of the implementation.

"I think that a church has to decide that they can spend the money and the time—the money for the whole system, the money and the time for the training—to exploit all parts of the system," she said. "If they don't do the upfront preparation, they will waste money and frustrate employees."

Once a church decides to take the software plunge, there's a lot to think about. Experienced users like Imler agree that the most important thing to do is to identify the church's needs. 

"Don't just look at the financial program because you want your financial program to shake hands with your giving program," she said. 

There are at least 150 different software solutions for churches with features that range from worship planning to attendance management. Some of the top features to look for are ease of use, level of automation, and support offerings. 

When evaluating cost, a church should include training and support in their calculations because those numbers can add up quickly. When evaluating a software company, it is essential to ask for references and take the time to check them. A company's customers are the best insight into how happy your church will be with a given product.

Besa Pinchotti is the marketing and public relations director for Capterra, a leading online destination for business software buyers, www.capterra.com/church.

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Religious Product News