Money and Religion

Social Networking for the Soul


Social Networking for the Soul

Photograph by Karen Moskowitz/Getty Images

Jamie Coughlin believes in the power of prayer. So much so that he’s built a website called PlusGrace that lets people pledge to pray for others online or donate money electronically to those requesting prayers. The website gets a small slice of the collection plate. “A lot of people say, man, there’s so much negativity in the news, and I can’t do anything about it,” he says. “Well, you know the one thing you can do to be proactive and affect the outcome? Pray.”

The for-profit business, designed and built by the 32-year-old Coughlin and his younger brother, was incorporated last November on All Souls Day and opened to the public in mid-January. It has a clean, user-friendly design and facilitates two types of faith-based campaigns: People can either ask others to pledge prayers only, or they can ask for prayers and cash. The campaigns are then featured under category headings such as “Recent” and “Random.” Slogans such as “Social for the Soul” and “Pray It Forward” flash on the home page, which also features popular users and latest tweets.

To post a campaign, users simply create an account, upload a few photos, and provide a title and a short description of the cause they believe merits spiritual or monetary support. Requests for prayer and donations can be made anonymously, and, though the Coughlins are Catholic, PlusGrace is open to all faiths. Early adaptors include a New Hampshire food bank and a spiritual boot camp in Tennessee.

Pledging prayers is free, but PlusGrace charges a 2 percent to 5 percent transaction fee on monetary donations. “Think of it as a Kickstarter for faith,” explains Coughlin, who says the lower rate is for institutions that want to use PlusGrace in place of weekly collections or tithing. Those types of cases, he says, “obviously warrant lower transaction fees, because probably the dollars flowing through that will be higher.”

Coughlin, a Princeton graduate who currently runs a New Hampshire startup incubator, says transaction fees are what makes PlusGrace possible, but he emphasizes that prayer is the major focus. “The goal [is] to build the world’s biggest online prayer network,” he says. In many cases, he says, people “don’t have dollars to contribute, and we’re basically saying to the world, look, your prayers are just as important. If you don’t have a dollar, you can still affect the outcome by praying. That’s powerful.”

Another goal is to help religious institutions get up to speed in design and social media. “Go to a lot of church websites, and they might as well not even have them,” says Coughlin. “They’re archaic and not visually appealing.” He also hopes to help religions reach the Internet generation, which he expects to connect not just locally, but globally.

“Obviously prayer, first and foremost, is your relationship to God,” says Coughlin. “But I think in the Internet generation, it’s also the power that prayer can be connecting with other individuals.” What’s more, he hopes the site will “challenge people to think about the habit of being online in a substantive way: Am I my brother’s keeper, or aren’t I? Am I just going to be talking about doing something superficially, or am I going to use the toolsets of social media for good.”

In the wake of Pope Benedict’s recent announcement that he plans to resign, Coughlin hopes the Church will elect a leader who “recognizes, ‘I don’t understand this technology, I may never understand it, but what I do know is that there is a generation out there that is living and breathing this world.’”

Coughlin has also reached out to the Vatican to let them know about PlusGrace. And, for what it’s worth, PlusGrace is hosting a campaign to pray for Pope Benedict and to pray that the Church’s Cardinals elect “a natural communicator, a charismatic leader and someone who can evangelize the Catholic faith throughout the world.”

So far, that campaign has received seven online prayers.

Cwinter
Winter is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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