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Although charitable giving is up as a whole across the United States, the religious sector is slipping in comparison to other parts of the charity landscape.

Although charitable giving is up as a whole across the United States, the religious sector is slipping in comparison to other parts of the charity landscape.

According to a report this week by the Atlas of Giving, charitable giving in the United States grew at a faster rate in 2011 than overall economic growth for the year, up $24.2 billion from the 2010 total of $322.69 billion.

Religious giving increased by $8 billion in 2011, but that was low in proportion to other sectors. The amount given to churches fell as a portion of total giving in America, from 37 percent of all donations a year ago to 36 percent in 2011.

The trend is expected to continue. Religious giving, the largest charitable sector in the United States, is also projected to grow at less than half the rate of overall charitable giving in 2012. Atlas CEO Rob Mitchell said a movement away from church among Americans is a factor in the decline.

"Mainline denominations in the United States have steadily been losing membership, that's part of a long-term trend," Mitchell said. "Also, proportionally, even though religion is the largest sector, churches compared to other areas like art, health, etc. is losing its market share in the big charitable pie."

The report forecasts that overall giving is expected to grow 3.9 percent in 2012 to $360 billion although unexpected events like disasters and economic dips and rebounds will affect the overall outcome. And although growth was up as a whole in 2011, not all non-profits benefited from the upward trend in charitable donations.

"The increase was not enjoyed by all nonprofits," Mitchell said in a press release. "Organizations that rely on many small gifts from many small donors are still greatly impacted by the effects of continuing high unemployment."

Mitchell pointed out that the religious sector is one of these organizations still hurting from the high unemployment rate of its contributors. "High unemployment is particularly impactful with that kind of a donor base," Mitchell said. "When people are out of work they tend to suspend their charitable giving for obvious reasons. Giving after re-employment does not resume for several years as these individuals satisfy postponed expenses like replacing and maintaining cars and other household items."

However, Dan Busby, President of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) — an accreditation agency dedicated to helping Christian ministries, has a more optimistic outlook on the future outlook based on numbers from 2010. According to the 2011 ECFA Annual State of Giving report, cash charitable giving to ECFA members totaled $9.38 billion in 2010, a 5.8 percent increase from the 2009 level of $8.87 billion.

"We do not see any indications of a drop in giving to churches," Busby said. "It is a testament to the Christian people, even though many of the members of our churches and others are out of work."

The Chronicle of Philanthropy did corroborate the Atlas of Giving's report when it comes to nationwide nonprofits that depend on small donations from private donors. The Chronicle's Philanthropy 400, the charities that raise the most from private sources, expect an increase in charitable donations but not enough to make up for the loss experienced during the economic downturn.

"Charities on the list together raised 8 percent less last year (after in inflation) than they did in 2007," the report said.

Education is one of the sectors that really thrived according to the Atlas of Giving report, with a 9.8 percent growth to $54.3 billion in 2011. Mitchell explained unemployment does not affect the education sector as much as others.

"Universities are doing well because alumni are not struggling with unemployment and major gift donors are giving from assets and not income," Mitchell said.

The 2012 forecast predicts a bright outlook for charities with an environmental mission projected to be up 8 percent, and that political fundraising will affect less than 1 percent of the overall charitable giving.

"The Atlas forecast uses a complex algorithm developed by 25 Ph.D.-level mathematicians, analysts and statisticians that includes detailed economic and demographic input factors," according to the Puget Sound Business Journal's Valerie Bauman. "The algorithm correlates to 42 years of published giving history."

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