Is there a correlation between a person’s religion or faith experience and giving? Certainly, we know it’s commonplace to give to the church of choice. In some religions giving is mandated or expected; in others it’s a personal matter.
But what about giving beyond this level? Does faith or one’s religion have a major effect on giving to nonprofit and charitable causes or is the effect neutral? These aren’t questions just for those who specialize in faith-based organizations’ fundraising efforts but are essential to also understand what role faith and religion play in overall giving.
In my case my early childhood experiences alerted me to this issue. I was a refugee child – my father was a church leader, and we had to flee Communism. We ended up as homeless wanderers in several countries, and often it was churches wherever we landed at the moment that supplied us with life’s basic necessities, including food and sometimes shelter so we didn’t have to sleep on the street or in the forests. Eventually I became aware of other kinds of generosity, such as CARE packages. Eating my first gumdrop is still a vivid memory.
Consequently, I’ve always been interested in what role our spiritual experience, and specifically our church relationship, plays in how we respond to appeals from nonprofits in general.
Two prominent researchers formerly from Boston College, Paul Schervish and John Havens, conducted research over several years about motivations for giving. These motivations were included in the curricula of The Fund Raising School, and other researchers have echoed these research results and built on this knowledge. The most predominant motivators, adapted from their research studies, were the following.
According to a study conducted by the Charities Aid Foundation, based in the UK, that included over 700 donors who were interviewed and asked to identify their motivations for giving. One finding concluded that “selfless giving is often a key component of many spiritual and religious belief systems, and an overwhelming 71% of donors pointed to their religious values as a key motivation for their commitment to charity.”
More recently, in 2021 authors Jennifer Altamuro, James Bierstqker, Lucy Huajing Chen and Erica Harris quoted previous research – Bekkers and Wiepking, 2011; Putnam, 2000; Wuthnow, 1991 – and concluded that donors with religious beliefs are more likely to donate to nonprofit organizations due to their commitment to religious social norms that encourage charitable giving and/or social pressure among religious individuals to give.
A premier organization, the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving, which is part of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, specializes in this topic and is well worth the time spent on perusing the website and its offerings.
Much more could be quoted in terms of research, even if only Googling the topic, and much more discussion could be devoted to this topic. Suffice to say that in general there is consensus, bolstered by research and experiential evidence, that one’s faith and participation in a religion are significant motivators for giving.
So how does this affect a fundraising professional in any nonprofit and his or her professional practice? From my own decades-long experience of working with almost every conceivable type of nonprofit (i.e., training, consulting, educating, mentoring, researching and also hands-on fundraising), I have drawn these conclusions that I include in my practice.
This is the first in a series of posts by Dr. Lilya Wagner on the relationship between faith and giving. Stay tuned for future installments.