Giving USA 2019: Implications for Religious Organizations

Giving USA 2019: Implications for Religious Organizations

January 28, 2020 by Dan Schipp

According to Giving USA 2019: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2018, American giving reached $427.71 billion in 2018, an increase of 0.7 percent in terms of current dollars but a decline of 1.7 percent from 2017, when adjusted for inflation. Even adjusted for inflation, charitable giving reached its second highest level ever in 2018, second only to 2017. Thus, 2018 is seen as a very strong but complex year in terms of philanthropy.

GUSA 2019 Religion web

What this Means for Religious Organizations:

Giving USA reports that giving to religion declined to $124.52 billion in 2018 (a 1.5 percent drop in current dollars and a 3.9 percent drop when adjusted for inflation). This is the first decline for the sector following seven years of positive or flat growth. Still, it remains the largest philanthropic subsector, receiving 29 percent of all charitable gifts in 2018. It is notable that for the purposes of the Giving USA report, religious organizations include congregations, missions, religious media, and other related organizations. Even with this narrow definition, giving to religion comprised 29 percent of charitable donations in 2018. If all houses of worship and religiously oriented charities (e.g., schools, hospitals) were included in this category, up to 75 percent of all charitable giving could be considered religious in nature.

Giving USA reports that the Tax Cuts and Job Act (TCJA) will likely have mixed effects on giving to religious organizations, and it will take several more years to fully understand the implications of the law on religious donors and organizations. Some religious organizations are concerned that individual giving will decrease as less individuals itemize their deductions. However, others point out that individuals give to religious organizations specifically with less regard for the tax implications of doing so and that many individuals may increase their gifting if their take home pay increases under the TCJA.Despite the overall decreases in giving to religion, it is notable that online giving to religious organizations is on the rise. According to the Blackbaud Institute’s Charitable Giving Report: How Fundraising Performed in 2018, online giving to religious organizations grew 2.9 percent in 2018 (more than twice the rate of growth for online gifting to charities overall). Moreover, these online gifts to religious organizations tended to be larger than online gifting to other sectors.   

Studies are revealing interesting trends regarding religiosity, religious service attendance, and decisions regarding giving to religious organizations. The Pew Research Center released results last year which found that 39 percent of respondents considered themselves “highly religious,” however, only 23 percent of respondents reported attending religious services weekly. Another recent study of Evangelical Christians by Dunham+Company found that millennial Evangelicals were far more likely to attend church weekly than their older counterparts. This group fell in between the GenXers and the Baby Boomers in terms of giving annually.  

Suggested steps for improved fundraising results for faith-based organizations:

  • Focus on your online presence and ensure that opportunities to give online are easy and accessible. As noted above, online giving is becoming an increasingly important mode for charitable gifts to religious organizations. Make sure that your organization maintains an active online and social media presence. Your website should engage with congregants and make it simple and safe to share their contact information with you and to make donations to your organization if they are so inclined.  
  • Build your congregation and your reach. Declines in religious philanthropic giving correlate with a national decline in regular religious service attendance. Engage with your current congregation and assess how to grow that congregation. As the congregation grows, so will your pool of potential donors and volunteers. Also, do not forget to pursue funds from outside your congregation. Even those who may not share your religious convictions may be interested in a particular mission or program related to your organization. 
  • Ensure that giving is part of your organization’s message. Religious organizations are in a unique position to engage with many of their congregants on a weekly basis. While no one wants to attend a weekly sales pitch, don’t fail to use your opportunities speaking before your congregation to explain the importance of their generosity, the purposes for which it will be used, and the various modes of giving that you have made available.