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Faith and generosity – a marriage made in heaven??

Faith and generosity – a marriage made in heaven??

May 24, 2023
Lilya Wagner

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.

  • Communities of participation/association
  • Identifying with the cause
  • Invitation to give
  • Ability to give
  • Positive examples, especially from youthful times
  • Positive outcomes promised
  • Religious motivations

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.

  1. Understanding a prospect or group’s faith preferences is part of the initial prospect research effort and subsequent record and plan of action.
  2. This may aid in connecting the right person with the right prospect.
  3. Faith and religion can be indicators of values that are expressed by an organization’s case statement.
  4. The funding request can emphasize those values without direct reference to the particular religion, although of course it’s good to do so if it seems appropriate for the donor or prospect.

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.


Lilya Wagner

Dr. Lilya Wagner has been instrumental in the nonprofit sector for more than three decades. She has served as vice president for institutional advancement at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska; vice president for development at the National Association for Community Leadership; and vice president for philanthropy at Counterpart International, a global development organization. She was associate director for public service and director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, oversaw curriculum preparation and revision for The Fund Raising School and has done training, speaking and consulting in more than 80 countries. Among her many awards is the Henry A. Rosso Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Ethical Fund Raising by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, given to individuals who have significantly advanced the fundraising profession globally and provided exceptional leadership in a long career of distinction. An award-winning author, editor and a columnist, Lilya holds a doctorate in education from the University of Florida in Gainesville and has master’s degrees in journalism and music.