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.
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.
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.
The last piece of the giving pie — 27 percent — goes to non-religiously identified organizations that focus on some of the same social needs as religious groups and other causes such as wildlife preservation or climate change.
Because of the mix of religious and secular groups that receive 59 percent of charitable giving to fund non-congregational work, the past distinction of religious giving doesn't work anymore, Ottoni-Wilhelm said.
"We now see a two-dimensional split where there is the activity on one dimension and there’s the identity of the organization on the other dimension," he said. "Think of World Vision as opposed to CARE — two organizations that do similar things but they have two different identities – one has a religious identity (World Vision) and the other doesn’t."
He said the value of seeing those two dimensions is that it offers insight into the role religious identification plays in giving — both by the giver and the receiver.
When it comes to the religious identity of the organization, 55 percent of those surveyed give to some type of organization with religious ties, but 53 percent also support organizations without religious ties.
The picture isn't so evenly split among givers, however. The data show the more religious someone says they are the more they give to all types of organizations, from their congregation (to which they donate the most) to non-religious organizations.
While it's no surprise 58 percent of people who consider themselves religious and spiritual give to their local congregation, 56 percent of that same group contribute to non-religious charities compared with 51 percent of those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious and 42 percent of those who say they are neither spiritual or religious.
Broadening the donor base
But that doesn't mean religious charities should ignore the irreligious in their fundraising efforts. Ottoni-Wilhelm said 42 percent is a significant amount of people that religious charities should pay attention to and try to expand.
"It means many of that group are on board with the work you are doing," he said. "We want people that work in organizations that have a religious identification to realize a chunk of their donors support them because of the work that they do even though those donors don’t have a religious affiliation."
And that strategy applies for secular charities as well.
"Don’t ignore reality that a lot of donors have religious affiliations or religion is important in their lives," he said.
He said a non-religiously identified organization could attract more religious donors through messaging that says their organization may not be affiliated with a religion and belief system, but a lot of religious people support our work because we have a vision of compassion and social justice.
Some religious-affiliated charities are aware of their broad-based support and carefully cultivate it.
Amy Parodi, a spokeswoman for World Vision, said communicating to a broad audience about World Vision and its work — without hiding or unintentionally misleading people about our faith-based identity — is top-of-mind in the organization.
"We have partnerships with secular groups — corporations, minor celebrities, sports teams, etc. — who don't necessarily share our faith, and we certainly have many donors who don't share our faith," she wrote in an email. "But as an organization, we've determined that our Christian identity is still very relevant for us and is something that we want to be clear about — and true to — even if that requires some occasional explanation for the audiences that we reach out to."
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