With #GivingTuesday coming up, charities are readying their year-end holiday appeals to a changing body of potential donors.
Older, married couples with strong religious ties used to be the target demographic for charities, ministries, and other nonprofits. But as this generation passes away, making way for a younger generation with weaker ties to religion, organizations worry their donor pools may be shrinking. Will nonreligious Americans (the “nones”) continue to donate?
A study released last month, just ahead of the year’s biggest giving season, examines the relationship between faith and charitable giving. For the overall population, single people who regularly attend church still out-give infrequent churchgoers (by more than double) and those who are unaffiliated (by 76%). But when researchers looked at Americans under 45, the numbers told a different story.
Women without religious affiliation are the next generation’s top givers—more generous than religious women and unaffiliated men, researchers at Indiana University’s Lily School of Philanthropy found. Their levels of giving were at least double most of the other demographics’.
The study, Women Give 2014, was the first to investigate how the conflux of gender, age, and religion affect charitable giving. Researchers measured giving to nonreligious and religious organizations, excluding congregations.
While the change in patterns is clear, the reasons behind it are a bit more nuanced, according to Debra Mesch, director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute and the director of the study. One possible explanation is that young, female nones are finding avenues and inspiration for giving through social connections outside of religious congregations. A religiously affiliated woman might give to World Vision as a way to fight hunger if others in her church are doing the same; a young woman without religious ties might also give to a secular charity fighting hunger if her friends are part of a campaign for the same group.
Indeed, as authors David Campbell and Robert Putnam report in American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divide Us, it is social connections, not necessarily religious ties or theological beliefs, that spur giving. Among religious congregants, the stronger their friendships in church, the more likely they are to give. Their research suggests that if secular organizations can create tight-knit connections among their donors, the giving would increase. Nones contribute more to causes than organizations, and as their numbers continue to rise, there will be more opportunities to mobilize around charitable activities outside of the church, through both online and in-person communities.
“This is actually good news for charities concerned about donor attrition,” said Mesch. “Even though the trend of declining religious affiliation is occurring, while the number of nones rises, this does not foreshadow the demise of philanthropy. It’s just that these patterns are really different.”
Mesch added that prior research shows women tend to give more to education, helping the needy, and youth and family issues—all areas associated with maternal care and nurturing.
“Women have been socialized to be care givers and nurturers of their families and communities through their own religious identities,” said Mesch. “Even from this report, you can see that women are more frequent church attenders. You learn a lot of those caring behaviors through your engagement with your religious organization.”
Given the influence of religion, will giving patterns change in the next few years as fewer women are conditioned to give through their congregations? It is too soon to tell, said Mesch, but both religious and non-religious charities would benefit from by keeping their eye on that demographic and seeing what types of causes they champion. In recent years, non-profits that focus on financial and social empowerment for women have risen steadily, she noted.
“The networks of women that are being formed around the country and the world to contribute to causes that resonate with women and girls is proliferating with groups like Women Moving Millions, The Women’s Funding Network, and Jennifer Buffet’s NoVo Foundation. You don’t have men forming these organizations and groups to donate to their specific causes,” she shares.
The changing landscape and how the networks are forming through blogs, celebrity endorsements and high net worth donors suggest that women are significantly giving more and more to these types of causes, she adds.
The fact that young, female nones are giving at such high rates is good news for secular organizations, but that doesn’t mean religious charities aren’t connecting with Gen X, Gen Y, and millennial women, too. Religious charities have also ventured into new methods of reaching and engaging women, including through social media. They are also keen to issues today’s women care about. In the microfinance sphere, Christian groups are also funding enterprising, entrepreneurial women in developing nations.
Women’s ministry has become more closely tied to social justice issues, with major conferences like the IF: Gathering—itself popularized through social media and the Christian women’s blogosphere—incorporating speakers involved in nonprofit outreach and inviting women to support causes across the globe, from fair pay for craftswomen to food for hungry families.
These kinds of causes emerge throughout the year, but especially around the holidays, as Christian women seek out cause-friendly gifts—blogger Jen Hatmaker just posted a list of suggestions—and ways to donate to charity in lieu of presents. “Just a little bit of intentionality can make an enormous difference this Christmas,” Hatmaker wrote. “Giving can be irresponsible and compulsive or it can be generous and beneficial.”
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