In 2015, giving is once again a booming business. Yet, when it comes to giving to religious organizations, the news is less encouraging.
Since the end of the Great Recession (2007-2009), overall philanthropic giving in the United States has grown by 12.3 percent while giving to religious organizations has declined by 2.4 percent, according to Giving USA, the annual survey of American philanthropy. In 2013, Americans gave $105 billion to religious organizations, accounting for 31 percent of all charitable giving. Compare that to the mid-1980s, when giving to religious organizations accounted for more than half of all donations.
The shifting of American charitable dollars from religious institutions to other areas has been a gradual process one that shows no signs of abating.
The 2014 General Social Survey, released in early March, showed that record low numbers of Americans attend church regularly, with just four in ten attending services at least once a month, down roughly ten percent from a decade ago. On the positive side, nearly sixty percent of Americans pray at least once a day, according to the survey. While there is a marked interest in personal spirituality, fewer Americans seem interested in supporting traditional religious institutions.
Despite the doom and gloom, many vibrant congregations across the country are demonstrating enormous creativity, funding new building projects, incorporating technology into the worship experience, and creating new outreach programs in the community.
How are some congregations able to run against the wind and complete major fundraising campaigns? Here are five ways your congregation can buck some of these downward trends:
- Create a Formal Development Committee It may sound simple, but creating a volunteer body dedicated to raising funds can make a world of difference. Your members have talents, experience, and contacts. Most of all, they provide valuable insight to clergy and professional staff about the kinds of messaging that will inspire members to give. By creating a committee dedicated to the fundraising agenda, a congregation can ensure that development remains a regular part of congregational operations. And an official committee can help establish policies that will guide fundraising efforts.
- Involve the Congregation Most of the time, a member of the church body is the best person to articulate a faith community's mission, speak to the theological underpinnings of giving, and ask parishioners to be generous. Too often, development work is left to support staff or one or two volunteers. A member of the clergy can't do it alone, but he or she must be involved. Speaking from the pulpit about giving is important, but it is not enough. Church members may be most effective in private meetings, in which he or she can cite a specific number and highlight successes and needs.
- Create Gift Categories Most people give, in part, because they are hoping to be recognized. No house of worship can discount the role that ego plays in shaping gifts. Pursued in an honest and ethical fashion, houses of worship can harness the desire of philanthropists for public recognition toward a sacred purpose. We suggest creating gift recognition categories. Highlight the names of individuals who make major gifts.
- Research Perhaps there is no more important ingredient to any fundraising campaign than donor research. What is the gift capacity of your members and supporters? What other kinds of organizations have your members supported and in what amount? What is important to them? A great deal can and should be learned before ever approaching a member for a gift. Of course, there's a lot of information available on Google. But your congregation can learn even more by investing in wealth screening services or software. A variety of options and price points are available.
To speak to America's evolving spiritual needs, our houses of worship have to evolve as well. Creating welcoming spaces, building connections, helping people engage in a more personalized form of faith: All of these things require financial resources. Raising needed funds for our houses of worship and the programs and services they run is a vital step for securing the health of spiritual communities for decades to come. These efforts require systematic and professional methods modeled after the ways large nonprofits effectively secure charitable support.
Robert Evans, President of the Evans Consulting Group in suburban Philadelphia, has more than 35 years of experience advising nonprofits on fundraising campaigns and strategic planning. A member of the Giving USA editorial review board and a board member of the Giving Institute, Mr. Evans is frequently quoted in media outlets such as The New York Times and blogs at The Evans Group Blog