The pandemic’s much-feared financial toll on churches and nonprofit ministries failed to materialize in 2020. That’s the verdict from a survey of 1,292 members and friends of ECFA (the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability) published March 4 in a 12-page illustration-rich report titled “Remarkable Resilience.”
Every three months since the nation’s coronavirus-driven financial upheavals began last spring, ECFA has polled its membership, plus other likeminded churches and nonprofits. After an initial dip in charitable giving, donations rose and held somewhat steady in the summer and fall. Donor fatigue apparently did not set in even across the end-of-year’s final appeals.
What did our survey uncover? For 85%, 2020’s income from cash giving was close to 2019’s. The breakdown of the 85% is instructive: while 18% said it was close—i.e., that 2020 was lower than 2019 by 1-10%, and 14% said the two years ended the same, 27% said that 2020’s cash giving was 1-10% higher than 2019’s, and an amazing 26% said that 2020’s cash giving was more than 10% higher than 2019’s. Thus 53% said that 2020 ended higher than 2019 for cash income.
For most churches and nonprofits, cash giving is their largest slice of the income pie. ECFA’s 2,546 member organizations average 58% of their revenue as coming from green cash, checks, online giving, etc. Another 27% of revenue comes from “other income” such as facility rentals, tuition, program fees, etc. The remaining 15% comes from non-cash giving such as gifts in kind, donated services, etc. This formula varies across many ministry types, with child sponsorship ministries averaging 99% of their income from cash giving, churches 83%, rescue missions 53%, children’s homes 28%, and colleges/universities 18%.
In ECFA’s recent survey, the “other income” slice of the pie did not fare as well, on average, as the cash giving slice. Some groups showed major drops in revenue from “other income.” Overall, only 67% reported that 2020’s income in this category was higher, the same, or close to 2019’s. The percentages who said so varied widely according to type of ministry. For pregnancy resource centers, 94% said that 2020’s “other income” was higher, the same, or close to 2019’s. For churches, it was 61%. For camps and conferences, it was only 10%. Those who felt the pinch the most were ministries based on travel (such as short-term missions) or in-person gatherings (such as camps, conferences, and sports ministries).
Somewhat surprisingly, financial optimism has remained strong across the pandemic. When asked about their financial outlook toward the next three months to come, larger percentages of churches and ministries selected “optimistic” than “uncertain” or “pessimistic.” In the February 2021 survey, 68% chose “optimistic.” Interestingly in the three previous quarterly surveys, overall optimism levels were almost as high: 58% (May 2020), 65% (August 2020), and 65% (November 2020).
One source of people’s optimism is the role of cash reserves. When asked about the state of their cash reserves, 74% reported that they didn’t touch their reserves in 2020 as opposed to using some or using all of them. Responses to this question were also broken down by types of ministry, again with a wide variation among the various types of ministry. Predictably, camps and conferences were the most likely to have used some or all of their cash reserves.
The survey asked about other issues such as whether staffing has been increased, kept at the same level or decreased—and the majority said they kept staffing at the same level. We also asked about non-staffing expenses, with the responses coming in all over the map. These non-staffing expenses seem to be where churches and ministries made their greatest adjustments during the pandemic.
Among other questions, perhaps the greatest surprise came in response to a question asking if churches and ministries anticipate applying for a PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan in 2021. Surprisingly, only 23% plan to do so.
“I believe our survey reports not only validate what churches and ministries are experiencing overall,” says Michael Martin, ECFA President. “But they also encourage them to press forward with greater boldness and confidence as each continues to focus on its God-given mission.”
The full “Remarkable Resiliency” report, along with previous reports, are available for free download at ECFA.org/surveys.