National Edition

Is religious affiliation the driving factor in charitable giving?

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 8 2014 4:00 a.m. MST

Bible in a pew.

Sandra Tester, Getty Images/iStockphoto

For decades the philanthropic world was divided into two communities: the religious and the secular.

The religious consisted exclusively of congregations that dealt with spiritual development of their followers, while the secular took in everything else, from disaster relief and health care to environmental causes.

"But everyone knew the (secular) group was actually a mix of religiously identified organizations," said Mark Ottoni-Wilhelm, a professor of economics and philanthropic studies at Indiana University's Lilly Family School of Philanthrophy. "We just never measured that second dimension, even though everyone knew religious groups were involved in providing basic needs."

Ottoni-Wilhelm is co-author of a new study that takes a new look at religious and secular giving and it found that 73 percent of charitable giving goes to faith-based organizations, whether they be religious institutions or a non-profits that have a religious identity such as World Vision.

The research also revealed that 34 percent of donors to faith-based charities say they don't belong to an organized religion. And more than half (53 percent) of donors who affiliate with a religion also give to secular charities.

While the findings confirmed that identities and values play an important role in in shaping charitable choices, the data also showed both religious and secular non-profits have a good chunk of donors who care more about a charity's work than whether it aligns with their religious views.

"There is no reason you can’t reach out to (secular and religious donors) to seek their support for the work you do," he said.

Philanthropic landscape

The research was conducted by Connected to Give, a consortium of foundations and Jewish federations brought together to "map the landscape of charitable giving by American Jews," said Shawn Landres, CEO and research director of Jumpstart, the philanthropic research and design lab spearheading the project.

He explained that Jumpstart's main focus is to examine the challenges facing the Jewish philanthropic system, which was hard hit by the recession and the Bernie Madoff financial scandal. But researchers expanded their view to the see what drives the entire philanthropic engine.

"We needed to know the American landscape in order to understand a religious community within it," Landres said.

The project has issued two reports that found Jews are generous but not necessarily to Jewish causes or to their local synagogue. The survey of more than 3,000 American Jews also revealed that the more connected they were to their community at large they more generous they were to both Jewish and non-Jewish causes.

The survey also included 1,900 Americans of other faith backgrounds, including those who didn't identify with any religious tradition.

The broader examination of all faith communities discovered three dimensions influence whether a person makes a gift to a specific organization: First, the purpose of the organization. Second, whether the organization did or didn't have a religious identity, and third, whether or not individuals consider themselves to be religious or spiritual.

Religious connections

The survey found that most (41 percent) household charitable contributions went to congregations and ministries pursuing religious purposes and the spiritual development of their followers.

Capturing the next largest share of donations (32 percent) were religiously identified organizations that pursue so-called secular social needs such as helping the poor in their community, local and international disaster relief, health care, adoptions and other services.

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