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The altered landscape of giving has both good and bad news

There are three reasons behind the seismic shift in religious giving, and three things we can do about greater generosity.

By William G. Enright and Richard Klopp

People of faith are renowned for their charitable generosity. Amidst what economists are calling the “Great Recession,” giving to religion is the one subsector of charitable giving that grew in 2008. While charitable giving as a whole decreased from 2007 to 2008 by 2 percent (-5.7 percent when adjusted for inflation) and individual giving dropped 2.7 percent (-6.3 percent when adjusted for inflation) contributions to religion increased by 5.5 percent (+1.5 percent when adjusted for inflation).

This good news regarding religious giving comes as no surprise. In the 12 recessions since 1967, religion is the one subsector least affected by the economy with religious giving — when adjusted for inflation  — declining but 0.1 percent. It is estimated that about 50 percent of all household giving goes to religion with most of that money going to local congregations and parachurch organizations. In times of economic crisis the local congregation remains the primary recipient of household giving reflecting what sociologist Robert Wuthnow calls “the local focus of American religion” as the local church is viewed as an extension of one’s home and family.

Amidst the good news there are storm clouds building on the horizon demanding our attention. The landscape of religious giving has changed significantly in the last 15 to 20 years. While religion continues to receive the largest amount of charitable dollars, religion’s piece of the charitable pie has shrunk from nearly 50 percent in 1995 to 33 percent in 2007. Between 1987 and 2004 giving to religion as a share of household income fell on average 30 percent for faith groups from the Mormons to Evangelicals to Mainline Protestants to Catholics.

Despite significant growth in real per capita income over the 20th century, the average percentage share of income given by Christians to religion declined from 1.2 percent in 1963 to 0.9 percent in 2000 with one in five American Christians giving nothing to church, parachurch or nonreligious charities. The upshot is that while the dollars given to congregations may increase each year, most congregations do not appear to be keeping pace with inflation.

Reasons for shift

What sits behind this seismic shift in religious giving? From both our research and our conversations with hundreds of clergy and congregations, three observations emerge.

First, the demographics of American religious practice are changing with fewer people claiming a religious home and church attendance waning. Ironically in all our studies on giving it is people who attend church once a month or more who are two to three times more generous in all their charitable giving than those who attend less frequently or not at all. The correlation between regular church attendance and generous giving cannot be underestimated.

Second, the generational shifts relative to religious giving and religious practice are significant. When we compare the Silent Generation (those born from 1929-1945) with the Boomers (those born from 1946-1964) and Generation X (those born from 1964-1981) there is a 37 percent  decline in the number of people who give to religion and a 42 percent decline in the number of those who attend church regularly. Ironically, among those who do give to religion and attend church with regularity, there is an increase in the religious giving of the Boomers and Generations X compared to the Silent Generation. In short, while the generosity of those committed to religion remains, high the numbers of those who are religiously inclined is declining.

The charitable giving of Boomers and Generation X is also more entrepreneurial, which means that they are less inclined to give to help congregations meet an institutional budget and more energized by causes that invite their participation with measurable benchmarks and a focus on effectiveness while addressing real human need. Traditional religious organizations and congregations appear to be challenged and ill at ease with the entrepreneurial giver.

No longer can congregations and religious organizations expect all donors to slide their feet into a prescribed institutional shoe. When it comes to fundraising, one size shoe no longer fits all donors. Rather, it is the congregation and religious organization that must discover how it can slide its foot into the donor’s shoe it if is capture the generosity of the entrepreneurial donor.

Third, the silence of the pulpit on money matters actually discourages generous giving. The taboo of money talk leaves clergy shy when it comes to talking about money, and laity squeamish about money talk in the church as our consumerist culture dupes many into equating self-worth with financial-worth. When clergy do talk about money and the faithful use of possessions, studies show that it is but once a year during the annual financial drive or when the church is asking for money; which means that all too often money talk comes across as a scold.

The moral issues

Meantime, people in the pews yearn for pastors and priests who will help them wrestle with the moral quandary of money: how much is enough? How much is too much? How do we balance needs with wants? At what point does the acquisition of life’s comforts cross the intersection into the accumulation of luxurious stuff? How does one integrate work into their faith?

Amidst the altered landscape of religious giving, how then might we talk about money and go about fundraising? The answer is not found in the newest stewardship campaign fad or fundraising gimmick.  The annual stewardship campaign and the periodic capital campaign, while necessary, are ultimately little more than icing on the cake. If congregations are to address the financial challenges they face they must learn how to bake the cake by creating a congregational culture of generosity.

Three ingredients are essential for a congregation intent on baking the cake of cultural generosity.

1. Clergy must learn how to talk about money matters and the faithful use of possessions with theological integrity and personal ease apart from any attempt to raise money.

2. Clergy and lay financial leaders must extend the practice of the fine art of pastoral care to the individual donor as they nurture discerning and thoughtful giving.

3. The creation of a culture of generosity begins with leadership: laity and clergy, and a governing board committed to fiscal transparency and institutional accountability as they provide the congregation with the leadership it deserves  while affirming the worthiness of the congregation to receive the gifts and goodwill it desires.

William G. Enright is director and Richard Klopp is associate director of the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. [www.philanthropy.iupui.edu]

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