While the overall giving showed a continued slow recovery, there were troubling signs for religious organizations. Giving to religion, which Giving USA defines as giving to houses of worship, denominations, or religious media organizations, fell for the second straight year.
Though it remained the largest recipient of charitable dollars (receiving 32 percent of all dollars given) the religion subsector experienced an estimated 1.7 percent drop in contributions between 2010 and 2011.
This drop is particularly glaring when compared to other subsectors. Only one other subsector (giving to foundations) experienced a drop in giving this year, and giving to religion holds the ignominious honor of being the only subsector to have a cumulative decline between 2009 and 2011.
Although it still receives the largest percentage of charitable dollars, the religious subsector’s share of total giving is also declining. In 1995, gifts to religious organizations accounted for nearly one-half of charitable dollars. In 2011, that portion was less than one-third.
Though there is no one clear cause of this decline, researchers with the Center on Philanthropy, which researches and writes Giving USA, suggest that at least part of the decline may be a result of declining church attendance.
Attendance at religious services has historically had a strong positive correlation to increased giving, and some studies have suggested that membership and attendance in formal religious communities have declined recently. The 2011 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches found that U.S. church membership fell 1.1 percent from 2010 to 2011.
The impact of both of these trends does not necessarily mean doom and gloom for all religious organizations, but it should remind all those involved in managing church resources that the religion subsector is challenged not only by the economic turmoil of recent years, but also by ongoing cultural changes.
How can religious organizations, especially churches, respond to these challenges?
I suggest two key actions: 1) be more direct in talking about faith and money; and 2) challenge (and teach) church members to be true, faithful stewards who generously share the gifts entrusted to them.
In addition, churches would do well to consider the “best practices” identified by Barbara Fullerton in a study of churches in the United Church of Canada (“Growing Generosity: Identity as Stewards in the United Church of Canada”, Wesley Theological Seminary, May 2009). Among those practices are the following:
Fullerton’s study reports that congregations that embraced these and other best practices experienced an 82% increase in per capita giving over a six-year period.