The June 2016 release of Giving USA report showed strong growth throughout 2015 in contributions to every non-profit subsector, except religion. At $119.30 billion, philanthropic giving in this category represented 32% of total contributions. While this is a 2.7% increase in gifts to religion compared to 2014, Giving USA history shows a steady decline in the amount and rate of religious contributions.

It is important to note that Giving USA’s methodology does not count gifts to faith-based organizations like Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, or denominationally affiliated universities as gifts to religion. This methodological consideration is significant because donors are likely still giving to religion, and in response to religion, but their gifts are counted in different subsectors such as human services or education.

Faith Remains a Strong Motivator

For decades, religion has remained a strong motivator behind many charitable dollars. People give where they are investing their time and creative talents, to causes that align with their personal beliefs, and to places where they feel they are receiving a benefit. Interestingly, in our nearly 27,000 private feasibility study discussions with donors,CCS research shows that 63% said they felt a religious or moral responsibility to give.

While research by the Pew Research Center and Gallup show a decline in religious engagement, church attendance, and individual affiliation with specific denominations, this does not necessarily mean gifts motivated by religion or to religion are in decline. In a 2007 Barna Group study on the evolving trends, particularly among Christians, in donating and tithing, George Barna found:

“With millions of people shifting their allegiance to different forms of church experience, and a more participatory society altering how people interact and serve others, many Christians are now giving their money to different types of organizations instead of a church. They attend conventional churches less often. They are expanding their circle of Christian relationships beyond local church boundaries. And they are investing greater amounts of their time and money in service organizations that are not connected with a conventional church. That doesn’t make such giving inappropriate or less significant, it’s just a different way of addressing social needs.”

Religious Giving Occupies a Broader Spectrum of Causes

Donors today want to see the impact their gift makes on a cause or institution. With a finite amount of money to give and a strong desire for social change, donors whose gifts were once given to traditional houses of worship are now likely being re-distributed to faith-based non-profits. Perhaps donors are not giving less to religion, but they are simply giving differently. People are expanding their views of religious giving; believing that their child sponsorship, gift to an organization committed to ending sex trafficking, or donations to faith-based crisis relief efforts are acceptable extensions of giving to and from religious convictions.

For religious organizations, there are a few simple ways to engage donors who are willing to expand their view of giving to religion via faith-based initiatives:

  1. Partner with like-minded non-profit entities. In the previously mentioned Barna study, churches that once organized ministries and hosted programs that impacted communities are now turning to established non-profit entities to serve those in need. Partnerships of this nature may leave donors feeling a doubly warm glow as they simultaneously support their faith and their community. For example, the Archdiocese of Hartford’s successful 2016 Annual Appeal God’s Mercy at Work supports the Vicariate Outreach Program that serves more than 240 local organizations such as homeless shelters, behavioral health centers, and food banks.
  2. Demonstrate how your organization is relevant and multi-faceted. Young donors, in particular, are concerned about many issues and want to use their resources to make a difference in multiple places. For those who are religiously affiliated, you can demonstrate how their faith can be put into action through your programming and case for support.
  3. Offer tangible opportunities for donors to give their creative talent and time in support of your mission. Seek to be nimble enough to create new channels for engagement and structured enough to keep your core values at the center of every program and outreach. The more donors feel they can invest multiple skills and facets of their personality, the better. Perhaps serving with your organization offers a unique opportunity to build a network, hone a skill, solve a problem, receive recognition, or interact with someone from a completely different part of the world.

While Giving USA’s figures do show that religious contributions are decreasing as a percentage of total giving, this does not necessarily mean that giving as a result of religious convictions is in decline. As the traditional approach to engaging religious practice gives way to new forms of religious experiences, it is likely that Giving USA’s religion figures will continue to shift alongside those of other subsectors. For religious organizations seeking to navigate this changing landscape, it remains important to find impactful ways for donors to honor their beliefs while partnering with your organization.

  • Has your religious organization seen growth in giving when connected to a separate non-profit entity?
  • Have you seen religious individuals engaging their tithe differently, perhaps allocating these funds to faith-based initiatives vs. traditional churches?
  • Millennials often desire to lend support to organizations that share their convictions and passions by giving their time or creative talent. Has your organization seen this trend in support?

About the Author

Christianna is an Executive Director with the CCS Mid-Atlantic team.