Religion and philanthropy in the USA

By Martin E. Marty
July 6, 2010

The Chronicle of Philanthropy chronicles – you guessed it – philanthropy, and in the 17 June 2010 issue it reports on ‘Giving USA’ for 2009. While the category of religion may not always overwhelm casual readers of trend-reports, religious giving is much watched. And there is much to watch.

According to another monitoring agency, Empty Tomb, “religion” last year raised $US 100.95 billion, which means that it represents 33 per cent of all charitable giving. While such giving is from the heart and so, on that level, is secret, it is also very public, thanks to the Internal Revenue Service and the reports of the congregations and agencies, most of which must, and do, give scrupulous accounting of the funds.

The public knows that the financial crisis and recession have hit philanthropy hard. The big givers held back most: Gifts in the over-one-million-dollar class were down a mighty 63.6 per cent. Giving to colleges and universities was down 17.8 per cent and to hospitals, down 11 per cent.

On such a scale, religion held up well. Analysis of 1,247 religious organizations in the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability showed giving was down only 3.7 percent there, all according to the ‘Giving USA’ reckoning. Empty Tomb found that overall giving to religion, after inflation, was down only 0.3 per cent.

The first question about statistics is: How accurate are they? One gets the impression from the numerous people quoted in the several Chronicle articles that a) they recognize the surveyors as conscientious, their methods ever-improving, their intentions good, b) but the results are not fully trustworthy.

Many observers think that the decline in most of the areas, including religion, the least-declinist, is more steep than reported. These analysts look at annual reports and balance sheets of religious organizations, most of which have had to cut back on personnel and projects because there are smaller funds with which to work. They talk to development officers and financial stewards and draw the conclusion that almost across the board, there’s been a decline of more than 0.3 per cent.

You might say that the professionals can “feel it in their bones,” trading anecdotes, looking in the mirror, and reading e-mails about unemployed relatives who, no matter where their heart is, cannot keep up with pledges or match those from earlier years.

Why is accuracy important? Consultant Edith Falk says “people want to have these numbers so they can benchmark against national numbers.” They are “also important because they are used to measure just how generous Americans are.”

Joblessness, market jitters, and other factors can take a spiritual toll. It is also important to see where priorities are. Dan Busby, president of the Evangelical Council, rightly says that “the impact of the recession has been spotty. Rescue missions and child sponsorship groups in many cases have done well, while others are impacted more significantly.” Favourite causes and those which have commanded loyalties over the years fare best.

In the Great Depression, many religious groups suffered a great depression too, so in this Great Recession it is natural for a parade of leaders to experience some, if not great, recession. Those who stress religious motivations, and speak of the bounties from God and the values of community, will not and should not be satisfied with the giving levels in still-prosperous America.

But comparing international and local cultural trends, one can only conclude that great numbers of Americans, moved by their faith, can be counted on. Will they prosper if and as the nation “comes out of” its current fix?




(c) Martin E. Marty The author is a leading US commentator on religion - and the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at

With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.

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