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?