December 17, 2010
The last few years have proven financially tumultuous for millions of Americans, who have passed on their troubles on to nonprofit organizations and places of worship. So what does that mean for charitable giving as 2010 draws to a close? Just like the reasons for giving, the answers are diverse. One theme, however, stands out: churches and Christian organizations must make significant changes to stay relevant in an era characterized by diminishing middle class incomes, growing need, and changing donor demands.
Donors Stick with Experince-Based Giving
In a recent conversation on charitable giving, I spoke with "Jeff," a friend from California. In his thirties, Jeff admitted to having extra money to give to charity, but not enough time to really investigate who or what he could start supporting. When I asked him what causes he currently supports, Jeff said he still gave monthly to an orphanage where he had volunteered in India several years ago. The orphanage doesn't many updates, but the experience of volunteering - although it was years ago - makes his monthly gift an unquestioned and essential part of his life today.
Jeff's experience isn't an isolated one. A recent report on "High Net Worth Philanthropy," released by The Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University, indicates that firsthand experience with an organization's work is frequently linked to a long-term giving commitment.
"Personal experiences with an organization and firsthand observations or knowledge of the organization's impact were important factors for high net worth households when making charitable giving decisions in 2009," the report states. Three in four wealthy households cited personal experience with an organization's work, whether by volunteering or receiving their services, as an important factor in their charitable giving decisions. Almost as many said personal connections or outside observation of the organization moved them to donate.
New Breed of Donors on the Rise
Donors' desire for a firsthand encounter with charitable work is not something churches or nonprofits can take for granted. Today's Christian donor is not as willing as their forerunners might have been to sit in a pew and write a check every few weeks. As George Barna of Barna Research Group notes, "With millions of people shifting their allegiance to different forms of church experience, and a more participatory society altering how people interact and serve others, many Christians are now giving their money to different types of organizations instead of a church." He notes that as people invest more time outside the traditional church building, their donations follow.
Today's Christian donor seems to be an individual with one or more hot button issues that he or she is willing to seek out and support. And Barna doesn't think that's a bad shift. "[It] doesn't make such giving inappropriate or less significant," he notes, "it's just a different way of addressing social needs."
Needs on the Rise
Meanwhile, the "social needs" Barna observes are only increasing. The recession reduced the incomes of many middle class Americans and pushed many impoverished families even further beneath the poverty line.
Shelley Henderson of the Salvation Army in Charlotte, North Carolina, has seen "a tremendous increase" in the number of families who need basic necessities this year. Sadly, donations have also gone down. "Kettle donations are down by about ten percent this year," she told FOX News in Charlotte. This year, she says, more than 6,000 local families have requested holiday assistance from the organization.
In evangelical circles giving has faced only mild declines overall. The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) recently released a report revealing that donations to ECFA members were down just 0.1 percent from pre-recession levels. Dan Busby, president of the ECFA, said the reports "suggests a strong commitment of givers to the Christian faith and the generosity of God's people."
Donors to some organizations have recognized the increased need and responded accordingly, said Ann Buwalda, executive director of Jubilee Campaign USA. The nonprofit works to protect the rights of oppressed religious minorities and aids at-risk children throughout the world.
"Many of our long term and faithful partners have realized that the downturned economy would decrease our gross revenues and have given more - for which we are enormously grateful," she says, "We have experienced a decline in overall revenue these past two years. Yet, we have been able to meet all program obligations through our staff and volunteers' increased efforts."
And many people are indeed increasing their efforts to help their neighbors this holiday season. Churches such as Missouri United Methodist Church in Columbia, Mo., have adopted families in need through a local charity, and offer shelter for the homeless on chilly nights. Projects such as Advent Conspiracy have prompted thousands to "substitute compassion for consumption," by committing to worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all.
"Our actions need to be very celebrative and very festive but also somewhat counter-cultural in creating space and time to wait, to listen, to prepare" during the Advent season, said Missouri United Methodist's senior pastor, Amy Gearhart.
Returning to True Charity
The recent trends show that many nonprofit organizations and churches will need to look for new ways to expose donors to compelling aspects of their work. If churches can help Christians develop close attachments to causes they care about, long-term relationships between donors and organizations will follow more naturally. But the recession does have a bright side for charities; potential donors are more aware than ever of real needs. So perhaps the past couple years, in spite of the diminished wages, lost jobs and heart-wrenching effects of job loss, just might lead donors closer to the kind of life Christ exhibited and taught: one of simplicity, compassion, and generosity.
Kristin Butler is a contributing writer at Crosswalk.com, where she covers topics related to religious freedom, human rights, and philanthropy. For further articles, visit her website at kristinbutler.net.