Giving to Religion – The Hard Data

uses pie chart

Every year Giving USA puts out its annual report on the sources and uses of philanthropic dollars in the United States. Lots of great information – for example, total charitable contributions for 2011 were $298.44 billion. (The most recent report covers 2011.) That’s about $961.16 per person.

Of immediate interest to religious communities is the data on exactly how much of that $298.45 billion was given to religious communities. Every year, the religious subsector of nonprofits receives the largest share of dollars, and 2011 was no exception. In 2011, religious organizations received an estimated 32% of the total, or $95.88 billion.

That’s the good news for religion.

Now, here’s the other side. In 1986, people gave half of their charitable donations to religious organizations. In 1987, that bumped up to 52%. And since then, there has been a long, slow, steady decline. 2011 was the lowest that share has been in the history of tracking charitable contributions.

Here is my list of reasons for the decline. These are in order of importance:

  1. Declining attendance. If you have fewer people coming in the door, that’s makes a huge impact. 
  2. No strategy or staffing around fundraising. The rest of the nonprofit world is blowing the doors off of the religious sector.
  3. The number of nonprofits has doubled over the last twenty years.
  4. Lack of transparency. Donors are becoming more sophisticated and savvy, but religious organizations aren’t keeping up.

And here is my strategy for turning that trend around, again, in order of importance:

  1. Vision, Vision, Vision and Mission, Mission, Mission. Show me the impact. 
  2. Leadership needs to learn and practice solid fundraising.
  3. Open the books and demonstrate fiscal stewardship. At the very least, file a 990 and make it available.