In 2018, giving to religion by individuals, corporations, and foundations declined, decreasing by 1.5 percent (3.9 percent when adjusted for inflation) to $124.52 billion, or 29 percent of total charitable contributions.
While concern has been raised that declining donations to religious congregations and a decrease in religiosity in the U.S. could lead to fewer charitable donations and smaller giving amounts overall (research shows that people of faith are more likely to give to not only religious causes, but secular causes as well), research from Dr. David King, Karen Lake Buttrey Director of Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy shows that there are more nuances to understanding giving to religion than a cursory look at numbers may explain.
For one, giving to religion is defined as giving to congregations, missionary societies, religious media, and denominations. Organizations such as World Vision, The Salvation Army, Yeshiva University, and Islamic Relief are classified under other categories outside of religion, such as human services, education, and others. According to Dr. King, people of faith may give to these nonprofits because of their religious identities, even though these donations are not categorized under giving to religion.
By expanding the definition of religious giving to include both houses of worship and faith-based nonprofits, religious giving would make up 73 percent of all charitable giving.
In addition, the National Study on Congregations’ Economic Practice (NSCEP) found that even when using a narrow definition of religious giving, 48 percent of congregations reported budget growth from 2014 to 2017. Roughly two-thirds of those organizations had revenue growth of at least 10 percent. While some congregations experienced a decline in revenue, others, such as black Protestant churches, experienced growth in revenue and size. Megachurches with many resources also did well.
While people of faith continue to donate to religiously-affiliated nonprofits and to their congregations, secular nonprofits can also benefit from their generosity.
Dr. King advises fundraisers of both religious and secular nonprofits to consider potential donors’ values, ethics, and what makes them want to engage with a nonprofit’s mission and cause. Then, engage them on that level.
“It’s important for fundraisers to understand the basic principles of another person’s faith. For example, if you’re having a lunch conversation, what dietary restrictions could arise? What might be the best dress to wear for a meeting with someone of faith?
“Fundraisers should also consider their own values and why they chose to work for the nonprofit that they do. Discovering that meaning can lead to open conversations with potential donors about their own traditions and values,” he explained.
Melissa Spas, managing director of education and engagement, added: “The nature of religious practice, including faithful giving, is to connect our present with a meaningful future, and thus religious philanthropy is inherently future-oriented as well. When we have a clear vision of the future, we can invite others to contribute toward that vision and participate in a powerful mission.”
While giving to religion (narrowly defined) may be decreasing, fundraisers still have opportunities to engage with people of faith and work together to build a better world.
To learn more, read “Myth 1: Religious Giving is Declining” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review article “Eight Myths of Philanthropy.”