Most research that investigates religious charitable giving focuses on the institutions that receive donations. For example, the most recent edition of Giving USA notes that religious institutions receive 32 percent of all charitable donations.1 However, one gets a wider picture of the philanthropic landscape by better understanding the individuals who make charitable donations. Although Giving USA reports that only 32 percent of giving goes to religious institutions, more than half of donors cite their religious commitments when asked about their motivations for giving.2
One of the best studies examining charitable giving from the donor’s perspective is the Philanthropy Panel Study (PPS). Every two years, in conjunction with the University of Michigan’s Panel Study of Income Dynamic (PSID), the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy conducts The PPS. It is the longest running longitudinal survey of donor-reported charitable giving in America. The findings for the most recent study, fielded in 2013, have just been released and provide fresh insight into the state of religious giving.
The study reports a downward trend in total giving to religion for most denominations since 2003. Although the PPS found that both religious and secular giving had decreased over the same ten-year period, the decline in religious giving outpaced secular giving. The only religious group that experienced an increase in giving during this period was the theologically liberal, non-traditional denominations such as the Unitarian Universalists.
The average contribution to religion has been stable since 2003 for almost all religious groups. The report found that the most notable decline in the average religious gift came from Jewish individuals, which decreased 44% ($1,531.08 in 2003, and $856.92 in 2013). The most notable increase in the average religious gift since 2003 came from conservative, non-denominational believers (Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Science), who increased their average gift by 30% ($2,454.12 in 2003, and $3,210.71 in 2013). Members of these groups have maintained the highest average gift to religion each year that the PPS has been conducted since 2003.
Regional differences exist in religious giving. As expected, individuals in the South reported the highest average gift to religion ($1,030.51). The average gift for individuals in the Midwest and the West was almost identical ($869.62 and $869.02, respectively), and the lowest average gift to religion came from those in the Northeast ($552.84).
The PPS also examines the role that income plays in religious giving. On average, individuals making under $50,000 gave $315.81 in 2013. Those making between $50,000 to $100,000 donated $883.13, and persons making more than $100,000 gave $1,894.68. Over a ten-year period, incidence of giving to religion fell between 10-13 percentage points for all income brackets – no doubt impacted by the Great Recession. While the average donation remained relatively steady for persons making under $50,000 and $100,000, those making more than $100,000 increased their average gift from $1,665 to $1,894 between 2003 and 2013.
1 Giving USA: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the year 2014 (2015). Chicago: Giving USA Foundation.
2 Melanie A. McKitrick, J. Shawn Landres, Mark Ottoni-Wilhelm, and Amir D. Hayat. 2013. Connected to Give: Faith Communities. Los Angeles: Jumpstart.
Rev. Thad Austin is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and the William G. Enright Fellow at the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. While working on his Ph.D., Rev. Austin serves as Graduate Assistant at Lake Institute on Faith & Giving. Rev. Austin also serves as the Managing Editor for Seedbed publishing's "Church Leader Collective" on church finance and administration. Before coming to Indianapolis, he was appointed as the Executive Pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the second largest Methodist church in Middle Tennessee. There, he oversaw the church's fundraising, administration, and HR efforts in addition to his pastoral duties.