Religious vs. Secular Non-profit Giving – An Apples to Oranges Comparison

Posted on August 21, 2012. Filed under: Fundraising, Leadership, Non-profits, Volunteer |

Didn’t Anyone Ever Go to Sunday School?

The study done by the Chronicle of Philanthropy about the different levels of giving in the country is informative and interesting, but there are limitations inherent in tackling such a large and complicated subject.  The first limitation is that since the study limited itself to taxpayers who itemize (in general, households earning more than $50,000) it ignores the level of generosity by households that don’t itemize on their tax returns, so I think all the statistics probably under report the actual level of American generosity.

The second problem is the one of comparing religious giving versus secular giving, which is at best an apples to oranges comparison, and in reality is an “apple-orange” to “orange-apple” comparison, by which I mean that there are elements of both in each type of giving.  Sometimes when I read posts about religious giving in the non-profit forums, I really get the impression that the writers never attended Sunday School, and don’t really fundamentally understand how churches operate.  If the principles of non-profit fundraising are applied to religious giving, it would be considered an abject failure and ludicrous.  I can only speak about practices typical in Protestant denominations, but let’s take a look at it through the non-profit fundraising lens and you’ll see how ridiculous it looks from that perspective:

  1. We will solicit our members in person 60 times per year.   There are 52 weeks of worship services, plus about 8 special offerings throughout the year (Christmas, Easter, One Great Hour of Sharing, etc.)
  2. We will publicly ask for your contribution in front of other people. (It’s called passing the plate during the offering).
  3. We will not provide individual thank yous (we will offer group thank yous).
  4. We expect you to fill out a card at the start of each year (a pledge) where you specify how much you will give each week/month/year.  This is not really optional, and we will make a big show of you publicly turning in your pledge cards as part of the offering process.

If as a consultant on non-profit fundraising I presented that plan to one of my clients, I’d be laughed at the room, and probably never invited back.

Here’s what the difference is: Religious giving is not a charitable solicitation, it is an act of worship, and hence has a different set of social norms and customs.  By definition, becoming a member of a church requires a “leap of faith” and the purpose of this essay is not to debate why someone chooses to become a member of a congregation, and why someone else does not.  Each person makes their own choice about that.

Here are some examples of how there are elements of both secular and religious giving in each category.  The Salvation Army is usually and deservedly credited with being one of the most efficient and effective charities in America, which it is.  It is however, a church, the word “Salvation” in its name is not talking about the furniture and clothing salvaged and donated to it, it’s refers to saving their member’s souls.    Many churches that I know of gather food donations which are then transported to local food banks, and often make up a significant portion of a local’s food banks supply.  This doesn’t get counted in the IRS reports because it’s not a financial contribution, and since there’s no receipt (unlike donations to Goodwill, Salvation Army, Amvets, etc.) this act of giving doesn’t get recorded anywhere except as a food donation at the food bank.  Obviously some portion of religious giving goes to support the physical plant and salaries of ministers and staff, but there are often community benefits that are not captured anywhere, but are of value.    For example, in northern Virginia where I live, many churches’ Sunday School classrooms are used during the week by secular day care and pre-school non-profits.   In my church there is an award winning pre-school that’s been there for forty years, and could not exist without the physical plant provided by the church, but that asset never shows up on the pre-school’s financials because it’s not theirs.

The apples to apples comparison is that both offerings to religious institutions and gifts to charity are tax deductible, but after that fact, trying to draw distinctions about differences and similarities is problematic.

I think it’s more important and productive to figure out ways where religious institutions and charities can more effectively work together.  Another under-tapped resource in my opinion are the potential volunteers that religious congregations may be able to provide to charities that effectively use volunteers in accomplishing their mission.

Regards,

Bill

Bill Huddleston

The CFC Coach

MPA in Nonprofit Management, George Mason University

billhuddleston@verizon.net

703-560-1825

http://www.cfcfundraising.com

P.S.  Here’s the link to the Chronicle study:

http://philanthropy.com/article/How-The-Chronicle-Compiled-Its/133667/

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    Fundraising and Leadership Development through workplace giving, CFC = Combined Federal Campaign

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