Religious households are more generous than secular ones when they donate money to charity, but they are less likely to give anything at all, a new study has found.
A larger percentage of secular households donated to their favored groups than did the percentage of religious households, according to the data from the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
The researchers found that 41.6% of secular households made donations to their charities in 2018, the latest year for which data is available. By contrast, only 29% of religious households supported religious and other charitable organizations.
The average amount given per household favored religious donors, however. Those households gave an average of $2,656 each, with a median amount of $1,000 per household.
Among the secular donors, the average was less than half the religious donor figure, $1,225 apiece, with a median amount of $450.
The most generous givers in both camps are over age 65, the survey found. This demographic information raises the question of how generous Americans will be in the decades to come as the older donors pass from the scene.
The data on religious versus secular household giving is part of a biennial study of U.S. charitable giving, which showed a mere 49.6% of households made a charitable contribution in 2018, the latest year for which data is available. That is a drop of 17% from 2000, when 66.2% of American households donated to charity.
Data isn’t yet available to determine whether the decline in overall charitable participation continued in coronavirus-and-lockdown-wracked 2020, researchers said.
Una Osili, associate dean for research and international programs at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, said the trends are significant.
For Americans, she said, “the largest destination of their giving is actually their faith communities, their houses of worship.”
But even before the Great Recession of 2008, that percentage declined, she said, adding, “religious giving, giving to congregations, is actually going down faster than overall giving to secular charities.”
Ms. Osili said a number of factors, including lower incomes, less wealth, and less disposable income had an impact on religious giving, as does a lower participation rate in religious services.
In the past, many donors heard about giving opportunities within their religious communities, whether from the pulpit, from formal teachings such as Islam’s mandate that 2.5% of income be directed to charity, or from a fellow congregant.
“When people are attending less frequently, not only are they not hearing those messages, but they’re also not being linked with the opportunity to give like they would in the context of a congregation,” she explained.
But secular donors, by definition, aren’t connected to a religious community. Where are these givers learning about giving opportunities?
Ms. Osili said it comes down to established interests.
“For some of those households, it’s supporting causes that they have a commitment to like the environment, or education, or health care,” she said.
“During the pandemic, we’ve seen a lot of Americans supporting basic needs and vaccine research and so forth. However, what we also stress is that donors give to causes where they have a relationship,” she said.
Younger donors are less trusting of charities overall, something nonprofits can address, Ms. Osili said, “by providing transparency and accountability to donors in terms of how [their] dollars are making a difference, that can continue to build that relationship with those donors over time.”
In both groups, the likeliest to give were older adults, with 43.5% of religious donors and 56.9% of the secular donors being 65 or older.
Asked about the demographic implications of an aging donor base, Ms. Osili said younger adults are giving in different ways, and that established charities need to adapt to changing times.
“I think there is a call to action for nonprofits and others to work with younger donors to think about new ways of engaging them,” Ms. Osili said. “The ways that might have worked for their parents and grandparents may not be as effective. Using technology can be a good way to bring a new group of donors in and to retain those donors.”
She added, “For many younger Americans, they want to do more than just write a check. They want to volunteer, they want to advocate. So giving them those kinds of ‘all-in’ opportunities, so that they can see how their gifts and their engagements make a difference.”
The full text of the study, “The Giving Environment: Understanding Pre-Pandemic Trends in Charitable Giving,” is available online.