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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Research Friday: "Is Religious Giving Increasing or Decreasing?"

Welcome to Research Friday! As part of a continuing weekly series, each Friday we invite a nonprofit expert from our academic faculty to highlight a research report or study and discuss how it can inform and improve day-to-day nonprofit practice. We welcome your comments and feedback.

Much like Robert Ashcraft's previous blog post, this is a glass "half full" or "half empty" question – for research provides evidence on both sides. Giving USA began tracking U.S. giving in 1955. Since that time, as a share of total giving, religious giving has decreased from approximately one-half of total giving to just under one-third today. However, in real dollars, religious giving is growing… slowly … by about 2 percent a year over the past 40 years. These data are provided by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University (hereafter referred to simply as "the Center") in Giving USA.

In the Center's publication, Philanthropy Matters, Executive Director Dr. Patrick Rooney tested eight myths about religious giving.[1] Some myths are upheld and some are dispelled.

In summary:

Myth I: Religious giving is falling. Not necessarily. As one can see from the explanation above, it depends upon your perspective!

Myth II: Americans tithe. Not really. Less than 3 percent of Americans tithe (giving 10 percent or more of income to religion) and more than half don't give to religion at all.

Myth III: Some faith groups are more generous than others. True. When controlled for income discrepancies, religious giving varies substantially among different faiths. Here are some data about the average percent[2] of income given to religion:

  • Latter-day Saints – 5.5 percent
  • Pentecostals – just under 3 percent
  • "Other Protestants" – 2.7 percent
  • Baptists – 2 percent
  • Other affiliations (Jewish donors, mainline Protestants) – between 0.5 and 1.5 percent.
  • Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists – less than 1 percent

Myth IV: The wealthy give less to religion. Yes and no. As income and wealth grow, so does the dollar amount given to religion. However, the percent of overall income going to religion falls as income grows.

Myth V: The more educated give less to religion. It depends. College educated persons are more likely to give (and give more) to religion than those with a high school education. However, those with postgraduate degrees are no more or less likely to give to religion than those with a high school degree or less.

Myth VI: Minorities give more to religion. In some cases, yes … but when the data were controlled for education, wealth, and religious attendance, race was not a significant factor.

Myth VII: Women give more to religion. Not true. But, as in Myth VI, when the data were controlled for education, wealth, and religious attendance, gender was not a significant factor.

Myth VIII: Southerners and people in rural areas give more to religion. It depends. It is difficult to stereotype giving by geography. However, there are indications that the average gift to religion is higher in some regions, such as rural areas that are not close to cities.

Rooney offers the following synopsis of the research findings: "Religious organizations should be aware that long-term growth in giving is a function of religious attendance." He goes on to say, "Talking more about tithing and encouraging the wealthy to give to their capacity also can encourage growth."

William Enright, director of the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at the Center, states, "Religious nonprofits should be more intentional in sharing stories about how they reach out to address the needs of the larger world."

Independent Sector and the National Council of Churches note the "extraordinary philanthropy of America's givers to religion" in a recent study[3] that explores the relationship between faith and charitable giving. The study observes that those households that give to both religious congregations and secular organizations give more to religion compared to households that only give to religion. Further, 55 percent of dual-giving (both religious and secular) households gave to at least two other organizations.

These studies, and others, indicate religious giving continues to be strong and supports the long-standing hypothesis that those involved in faith-based organizations are more charitable (giving and volunteering) than those who are not. But, as with all assumptions … this, too, would benefit from more research.

^ [1] Rooney, "Behind the Myths: The Truth about Religious Giving," Philanthropy Matters, Indiana University, Vol. 18, Issue 1. (Dr. Rooney's article utilizes two studies: The Center on Philanthropy Panel Study researches giving by households in the lower 95 percent of income and wealth; the Bank of America Study of High Net-Worth Philanthropy examine the top 3 percent of U.S. households.)
^ [2] There is caution in applying these statistics as they are for national averages. A further reading of the two studies noted in this posting will help interpretations for individual application.
^ [3] Faith and Philanthropy: The Connection Between Charitable Behavior and Giving to Religion. National Council of Churches and Independent Sector.


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