Office supplies take up around 4 percent of a church's overall budget—and software falls within that 4 percent. While software is a mere fraction of the budget (according to the "2014 Church Budget Priorities Study" by Christianity Today's Church Law & Tax Team), wise choices not only can enhance the efficiency of financial and other systems but also make a church staff more effective and productive.
"You want to choose applications that make the team as efficient as possible," said Nick Nicholaou, president of Ministry Business Services, Inc., an IT strategy group for churches and other ministries. "[Efficiency] is a hallmark of good stewardship."
Key to operating efficiently, Nicholaou said, is software that is comprehensive and standardized. Comprehensive software means that one package does most of the tasks an office needs—so there are fewer shortcuts and techniques to learn—and standardization means that all of a church's employees can share files among each other without spending time reformatting information from, say, a Pages document (an Apple product) to Microsoft Word.
With those big picture goals in mind, churches have several options available as they seek out software for financial bookkeeping, church ministry coordination, and other tasks.
One of those options is TechSoup Global—a nonprofit organization that provides charity licenses to procure software at deep discounts. Software that TechSoup offers is typically available at around a 95 percent discount, said Rosette Nguyen, director of strategic communication for the organization. TechSoup provides software from a number of companies including Adobe, Microsoft, and Intuit. Other companies, including Dell, provide computer software and hardware directly to nonprofits.
TechSoup in particular has seen a growing number of churches registering for its charity-license discounted software, said Nguyen. For about the past two years—since Microsoft announced it would extend charity license pricing to religious organizations—500 to 750 churches per month have registered with TechSoup. After registering, churches and other organizations can purchase discounted software from TechSoup's inventory and can use the organization's hotline to troubleshoot technology problems, Nguyen said.
"We realized churches need a lot of help because they're usually made up of volunteers who are not tech-savvy," Nguyen said. "A lot of it is the accidental techie—they don't even know how to download things, so they'll call in."
Linda Allen, treasurer at the 100-person Kona Baptist Church in Hawaii, has chosen to take advantage of both TechSoup's discounts and troubleshooting. Allen, who had heard of TechSoup in her previous nonprofit work, used the organization to purchase Microsoft Office Suite and QuickBooks Pro. Her church office now often has the most up-to-date software of anyone she meets at church networking conferences, she said.
"It's a big discount," Allen said. "What it's enabled us to do is stay current, rather than using old software."
Churches interested in the organization should find even more advice tailored to them in the future. TechSoup hasn't focused its advertising on churches, but may soon, Nguyen said. In the meantime, last year the organization provided a number of blog posts—still available on its website—with troubleshooting tips tailored to churches.
"We're all kind of surprised how much organic growth we've had from churches, honestly," Nguyen said. "I don't think any of us could have predicted this much interest."
Don't Skip the Fine Print
Churches interested in charity licenses might face a few hurdles, though. Some software companies require nonprofits to agree with nondiscrimination statements that churches might find problematic—and many churches might not be registered nonprofits at all, which is a typical requirement, Nicholaou said.
Software companies often rely on nonprofits to make good-faith determinations of whether they can agree with nondiscrimination or other behavior requirements to use products. Google, for instance, requires organizations to agree with a nondiscrimination statement saying they do not discriminate in hiring based on sexual orientation or other factors.
"The problem is that probably 80 percent of churches wouldn't be comfortable with that," Nicholaou said. "From a risk management perspective, if they say in a charity license that they don't discriminate in those areas and then terminate somebody because that person comes out of the closet, how does the church justify the two?"
Some charity licensing programs, like Microsoft's for Office 365, have broadened enough that Nicholaou thinks many churches could be comfortable with the requirements. But a church should always read the fine print, he said.
Tailor Made for Churches
Even if a church can cross those licensing hurdles, it still might prefer to use software tailored specifically to church needs for tasks such as financial bookkeeping. Financial issues can create problems for churches. Recently, the former Seattle-based Mars Hill Church faced threats of a lawsuit over its use of designated missions funds. So tracking financial information is especially important.
"Having a financial application that is fully reliable and has a secure audit trail makes a lot of sense," Nicholaou said. And for finances, it's important that the software be tailored to the reporting needs of churches as nonprofit organizations.
One option is ACS Technologies, which provides church management and accounting software written specifically with religious nonprofit tax requirements in mind. Where QuickBooks and other traditional accounting software is intended to be used by for-profit organizations, ACS software enforces stricter reporting requirements for the detailed audit trail required of nonprofits, said Russ Fortier, who oversees training and implementation at the organization.
"When money is changing hands from a volunteer who does the accounting, to someone else who posts, to someone else who reconciles it, you want a clear audit trail through the software where if someone makes a mistake along the way you can't delete the transaction," he said.
ACS software is more expensive than QuickBooks and other business-oriented products (though product cost varies by church size and other factors) but is tailored to church finance needs, Fortier stressed.
The Broader Implications
Churches thinking through technology choices should pause to consider what the technology does and how it will affect church operations. Technology—even technology as straightforward as financial software—can have a big effect, said John Dyer, author of From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology.
For instance, many churches can now rely on online giving software to help their congregations manage tithing, and passing a physical offering plate may not be necessary. But the tangible reminder of sacrifice, even if it's unnecessary, may be important to Christian discipleship, he said.
"I would be looking for, 'Is there some assumption built into this tool that will require us to do something differently?'" he said. "When you adopt any new technology, it's a new tool—it influences the way you do things."