Giving USA 2016: What Church Leaders Need to Know

Giving USA 2016: What Church Leaders Need to Know

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Last week, the Giving USA foundation released Giving USA 2016: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2015. Giving USA’s research undergirds much of the Lake Institute’s training and informs our research. This year, Lake Institute not only provided the context for trends in religious giving this year but also established partnerships with denominational statisticians to make the Giving USA findings even more robust in the years to come. In this edition of Insights, we unpack major trends in religious giving and explore what these trends mean for fundraisers, donors, and religious leaders in faith-based contexts.

The Landscape of Religious Giving

In 2015, philanthropic giving in America reached a new high, exceeding totals given in prior to the Great Recession. When compared to 2014, Giving USA estimates that overall growth in charitable giving in 2015 rose 4 percent, with religious giving showing steady growth of 2.7 percent. While Americans are giving more to religion than they ever have before, religious giving continues to grow at a slower rate when compared to the other nonprofit subsectors over the past five years. Although giving to religion was the last form of charitable giving to be cut during the Great Recession, Rutherford Cd. Johnson shows that  have seen religious giving return at slower pace in the post-recession years. Religious fundraisers, particularly those in congregations, would be wise to be aware of this trend and to actively engage donors knowing that individuals from other charitable institutions are likely also making solicitations.

The University of Michigan’s Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) found that the average contribution to religion has been stable since 2003 for almost all religious groups. Despite growing at a slower rate, religious giving still represents the largest portion of charitable giving in America, by far. Given the coding system that Giving USA uses to classify organization (primarily houses of worship, mission boards and agencies, and TV and radio ministries), religious giving (32 percent) is more than twice as large as the second largest nonprofit subsector, education (15 percent). However, when a different classification system is employed, the impact of religious giving is even more dramatic. A study entitled Connected to Give: Faith Communities found that “73% of American giving goes to organizations that are explicitly identified as religious.”

The Size of Congregation Impacts Giving

The 2015 National Congregations Study, directed by Mark Chaves, Professor of Sociology, Religious Studies, and Divinity at Duke University, found that congregational size has an effect on giving patterns, according to the study. Congregations that fall between 100 and 1,000 members tend to give less than those on either end of the spectrum. Moreover, while the majority of congregations were found to be small, the majority of churchgoers attend larger congregations. The average size of a congregation was reported to be 70 members with an annual budget of $85,000. But, the average churchgoer attends a church with 450 members and an annual budget of $450,000.

Online Giving Grows

Giving USA reports, “Giving to religion enjoyed tremendous increases in online giving in 2015.” A study by Dunham+Company reveals that 42 percent of congregations offer online giving compared to 70 percent of non-church nonprofits that offer online giving options. The percentage of congregations that offer online giving is heavily weighted towards houses of worship with more than 200 in attendance. Congregations without electronic forms of giving may find it difficult to increase donations. As one participant in Lake Institute’s programs said, “Many of the people in my congregation no longer carry cash or check. If we do not offer some form of electronic giving, we prohibit them from fully participating in worship.” While Lake Institute encourages religious fundraisers to promote and expand revenue streams through electronic giving, we caution that electronic giving should not become a substitute for actively and regularly engaging donors.


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