Can Giving and Volunteering Thrive Without Religion?

It’s been eight months since my company conducted our national research study on giving in a turbulent economy. 22,000 donors had a lot to say about how the economy is affecting their philanthropy, so it’s not surprising that we are still uncovering new information as we look at our data through various filters.

Fundraisers have always known that giving is tied to the economy – when the financial picture is buoyant, philanthropy is up; and when it’s not — well, we’re living through what happens when the economy takes a nosedive. But it’s not only the economy that dictates where philanthropy goes in the United States. Other factors influence the desire to give and the commitment to follow through, but none more decisively, it seems, than religious conviction.

37.4% of survey respondents defined themselves as “actively religious”, 24.4% not at all religious, and 38.2% “somewhere in between.” Actively religious donors gave considerably more to charitable causes in 2008, averaging $13,356 versus $9,397 for non-religious donors and $11, 190 for those identifying themselves as “somewhere in between.” Not surprising, actively religious donors also populate the coveted category — “top 10% of donors by gift value.” 60% of the most generous study donors identify themselves as actively religious. The average value of the single highest gift awarded to any not-for-profit in 2008 was more generous for actively religious donors ($5,507) than for either non-religious ($2,695) or “in between” ($3,557) contributors. And, actively religious donors were more likely than all other study participants to say that they intend to give the same or more in 2009 as they did in 2008.

Religious conviction is the proverbial tide that floats all ships. While actively religious donors are, naturally, far more likely to support religious causes, they are also more likely to give to education, healthcare, and human services. And, their commitment is not limited to giving. 79% volunteer vs 60% of all other study participants; and actively religious donors are more likely than others to do the heavy lifting on Boards of Directors and Campaign Cabinets.

But, who are these donors who define themselves as “actively religious?” Their demographic profile is very similar to that of all other study respondents, except for one factor – age. 29% of donors between the age of 55 and 64 and 20% of donors over 65 are actively religious, but only 10% of donors under the age of 34 define themselves in this way.

It’s possible, of course, that motivators other than religious conviction will sustain the generosity of our future philanthropists, but if current gift values are any indication, fundraisers should be concerned. Actively religious donors under thirty-five years of age currently give four times more generously than non-religious young donors, and three times more than under-35’s who identify themselves as “somewhere in between.”

The fundraising industry puts almost all its effort and investment into donors who are in their peak earning years right now, and who are sending signals to charities that they are ready to give generously. But, if giving and volunteering are connected to religious conviction, what will happen to philanthropy and voluntarism in the future as the influence of organized religion diminishes? Who or what is waiting in the wings to replace it?

Showing 10 comments
  • Barbara L.

    I would wager that the biggest gifts from ‘actively religious’ are to their own churches. If this is the case, many of the comparisons mentioned here might not mean much. If you take the average largest gift made by the ‘actively religious’ ($5,507, presumably to the church) and subtract it from their average total giving ($13,356), they are giving $7,849 to health care, education, etc., far less than the other categories of givers. I don’t mean to devalue the contributions of the ‘actively religious,’ but how much of their volunteer work is for the church as opposed to other types of organizations? With regard to young donors, most are still in the acquisitive stage of their lives, when they have little discretionary income, so we would hope their behavior would change over time. We readers need more data to understand the implications of this study.

    • Penelope Burk

      I’m reading with interest the thoughtful comments to this blog and I want to add a little more information for contemplation. All research of which we are aware that measures changes in religious affiliation agrees that membership in organized religion is declining. Also, no matter what age group we look at in our own research, people who declare themselves as “actively religious” give considerably more money to charitable causes. I drew readers’ attention to young people in this blog only because the percentage of under-35s who said they were “actively religious” was considerably lower than any other age group, something that may be an indicator of change on a significant scale in the long term. Regardless, “actively religious” is the category of the minority, not the majority, of respondents in each age category.

      No other demographic or psychographic criterion in our study has as consistent and pronounced relationship to generous giving as religious conviction. And, while readers are quite right to suggest that maybe young donors will return to religion later in life, and maybe actively religious donors make their most generous contributions to their religious organizations, we cannot assume that that is so, and the numbers and trends seem to be challenging those assumptions. In fact, religious organizations do charitable work, so an unknown percentage of gifts to one’s church, synagogue or mosque are flowing through to social services, healthcare, education, and the like.

      This subject may be one that the fundraising industry feels is beyond their ability to influence and, therefore, not worth time and attention. But, donors want to give; it fills a fundamental need to connect with society and to measure their own worth as citizens; and they have much more money to give (so they tell us) than they are currently contributing. And, fundraisers know that most people wait to be asked and that they often need prompting and reinforcement (donor cultivation.) The most consistent prompting and reinforcement takes place on Sunday mornings and Friday evenings — to a diminishing number of people. Hmmm.

  • Ivana Pelnar-Zaiko


    it would be very interesting to do a follow-up survey of the under-35 yr. old donors that correlates their giving with belief in preserving nature/ actively practicing good environmental stewardship: I think that that may be the “new religion” for that group.


  • Jim Heckman

    From the information provided, it seems that fundraisers will need to identify values in the up and coming generation that are susceptible to philanthropic response, and then communicate effectively to these values. Plausibly this will involve research, new thinking and new ways of communicating.

  • Julie Lehman

    Great case for higher ed. institutions to maintain their connection and dialog with faith. Both enhance each other when openly engaging, and now we know that it can benefit the institutions financially as well. Thanks, from a Director of Church and Interfaith Relations!

  • Sue Loiland

    This is definitely interesting information but it left me wondering: is there a trend of becoming actively religious as you age? I know that’s the case for me. If so, then these statistics may not be so alarming. Any thoughts?

  • Tom Struthers

    Perhaps people will come back to the church as they age. Are the numbers that classify themselves as religious at all decreasing significantly?
    Bigger question:
    Why are those orgs with religious affiliation so reluctant to use that to their advantage in their appeals.

  • Anne B Stericker

    I suspect, as suggested in earlier comments, that there is a tendency to become more spiritual or religious as one ages (true for me). I’ve read studies suggesting there is actually no decrease religious involvement in recent decades, but instead, a movement away from mainstream churches and toward evangelical ones. I doubt that charitable giving will suffer as these “not at all religious” thirty-somethings grow older.

  • Jeff Johnson

    My experience of “coming back” and becoming “more religious” as I age, and particularly as I became a parent (when intercessions not to kill becomes more urgent…), are similar to those expressed here. There is also consistent messaging about charity, which in all churches I’ve attended focus on the church’s local (food banks) and international (Honduras) missions. Are younger donors just receiving these messages elsewhere (online)? Or must they seek them out? As somebody in (but not of) the Bible Belt, I also wonder if your research showed any geographic differences in giving from “actively religious” folks?

  • Jeff Swan

    Weaver’s classic axiom that “Ideas have consequences” seems to be reflected here. The primary idea whose consequences Weaver describes is relativism – the absence of belief in any source of truth outside of man. As a reviewer on Amazon noted, while one might think this is too abstract an idea to matter in real life, Weaver argues persuasively that this relativism makes impossible the “metaphysical dream” of an organized universe (i.e, religion/God), leading to social chaos and virtueless individuals suckered by the media into believing that life consists only of chasing ever more creature comforts and a universal “spoiled-child psychology”.

    Scholar Arthur Brooks published exhaustive research on this topic in his book, “Who Really Cares?”, and he examined giving not only by religious views, but also by political, cultural and regional differences, and he came to much the same conclusions as Ms. Burk.

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