Attention fundraisers: We all need to start talking about religion and money

We are grateful to Susan Fish and Charity Village for allowing us to republish this article.

The old adage tells us we shouldn’t talk about politics, money or religion. While the first has lately become an all-too-frequent topic of conversation, it’s the latter two, and especially how they work together, that has been less discussed, especially within the charitable sector.

This omission, according to Penelope Burk, fundraising expert and president of Cygnus Applied Research Inc., is a risky proposition when it comes to the future of nonprofit fundraising.

At the risk of violating the wisdom of the adage, we thought we’d examine the important shift in the role of religious donors within the philanthropic landscape.

The changing face of religion in Canada

In a 2013 Globe and Mail panel on the future of religion in Canada, Dr. Michael Higgins said, “What we…see, in Canada at least, is an ongoing struggle to define the role of religion in the public arena, as well as a normalization of the notion that one can be spiritual without being religious.” Fellow panelist Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman concurred, adding, “People often suggest to me that they are very ‘spiritual,’ but…don’t belong to a synagogue or church, they don’t engage in an organized charitable project and they haven’t been building stronger connections to the community.”

These observations are borne out by research: The Pew Research Center’s examination of religion in Canada finds that, while that there is significant regional variation and the number of Canadians who belong to religions other than Christianity accounts for 11% of Canadians (up from 4% in 1981), Canadians who identify as Catholic have dropped from 47% to 39% over the last four decades, while Protestants have declined from 41% to 27%.

What is increasing is the percentage of Canadians who report having no religion — 24% of Canadians in 2011 and projected to represent between 28.2% and 34.6% by 2036. Even among the faithful, there is also a substantial decline of religious commitment across faiths.

Data from the annual Burk Donor Survey explains the decline in religious affiliation as primarily a generational one: while the survey does not distinguish between religions, it asks donors to self-identify as actively religious, spiritual, or not at all religious. In the 2017 survey, 36% of the oldest donors were actively religious as compared with 27% of donors between 35-64, and 20% of donors under the age of 35.

Why does this matter to every nonprofit?

Most nonprofits don’t track the religiosity of their donors, but Burk’s work suggests that, whether the work of a nonprofit is religious or not, it almost certainly benefits from donors who are religious — and will potentially suffer from the continuing decline in religious conviction.

This is because, as Burk writes, “Donors who are actively religious give considerably more to charitable causes than do donors who refer to themselves as ‘not at all religious’ or ‘somewhere in between’…Not only do they give more, but they are more likely to maintain or increase their giving in an unstable economy, and more likely to volunteer and do so at a leadership level. And, their commitment to giving is not limited to supporting their own religious institutions; actively religious donors give generously in every direction — to education, healthcare, social services and the arts.” The most recent Burk Survey found, for instance, that 33% of actively religious donors supported 11 or more causes in 2016 as compared with 23% of nonreligious and 22% of spiritual donors; it also demonstrated that 54% of donors who gave more than $10K were actively religious.

In an article in Macleans, Michael Wilkinson, a sociologist specializing in religion at Trinity Western University, explains the phenomenon of the tendency for religious people to give more than spiritual or non-religious people. “It’s part of their value system. They’re motivated to give; they believe they’re doing something that’s important for the community. They believe they are involved in something bigger than themselves.”

But religions do more than motivate people to give — they also teach and remind them to give. Burk says, “The third sector owes a debt of gratitude to religious institutions – because they teach and reinforce being good to fellow human beings.”

A Globe and Mail article says, “…not much beats the weekly passing of the plate in church for getting people to open their wallets to the cause. The donors are captive in the pews, ideally having just been primed with a sermon about generosity, and surrounded by a community of like-minded givers who will set the example for each other.”

The same article raises an alarm: “As the country’s traditional faith institutions lose members, Canada loses some of its most generous givers, those who have been taught since Sunday School or long before their bar mitzvahs to put something in the plate.”

If religious donors are a declining breed, the question becomes how to appeal to a broader base. For this, we turned to a variety of nonprofits who are addressing these shifts in donor demographics.

Staying true to the mission

For organizations that themselves have a faith-based mission, a decrease in numbers of religious donors may tempt them to become or to seem less religious to non-religious donors. Burk suggests, however, that organizations benefit more from staying true to their identity. “I give credit to religious-based organizations that don’t try to hide their identity in order to get as many donors as possible. This is who and what we are. If you want to join us, do. If you don’t want to support us, don’t.”

Rick Cober Bauman, executive director, Mennonite Central Committee Canada says, “We have tried to be clear with our partners, volunteers and donors about who we are, and we have no pretense to move away from our identity and our mission. At the same time, we try to provide an invitation to what we call the compassionate Canadian community who may or may not come from a faith perspective. We think it is important to present ourselves in a way that is clear about who we are but also offers an invitation to grow a broader community of engagement.”

In 2015, MCC unexpectedly found themselves being approached by Canadians outside their traditional community, looking to partner with them as a sponsorship agreement holder.

“We worked to create an open and welcoming experience for all Canadians who wanted to respond with compassion,” says Cober Bauman. He adds, “I can think of at least one person who was not part of our traditional community who got deeply involved in sponsorship and who is now a substantial ongoing donor in an area unrelated to refugee sponsorship. We explained to these new supporters who we are and what we do and invited them to stay involved with us.”

Reinvigorating the margins of faith

There is also a place to encourage possible supporters to step in from the margins. As part of Canada150 initiatives, Habitat for Humanity GTA decided to reach out to a variety of faith communities. A conversation between the organization’s CEO and Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl led to the rabbi acting as an ambassador for the organization, recruiting other rabbis within his network to participate in a multi-faith build, introducing a variety of CEOS and companies to sponsor the work of Habitat for Humanity, and participating in an interfaith working group. A similar reengagement happened with various Muslim groups who renewed their participation with the organization as a result of the multi-faith build.

There is also a place for non-religious organizations to draw on either a religious heritage or spiritual motivation of potential supporters. Paul Nazareth, vice president, community engagement at Canada Helps suggests organizations can use language and ideas from faith-based communities to appeal to potential donors. “Charities can learn many emotional and strategic lessons from the way religious organizations and places of worship have traditionally operated.” This can include everything from encouraging a congregational-style community to environmental organizations offering an opportunity to engage with nature as an expression of spirituality, or animal-based organizations talking about a familial relationship with pets.

Other organizations appeal to a religious heritage. Among the fundraisers for the Aga Khan Foundation are young parents who say to the organization, “We don’t go to prayers as often as our parents did with us, but this is a really simple way of allowing our kids to understand our core values.”

Creating new vehicles for education

“Professional fundraisers have not had to do 100% of the work, because religion has done some of the teaching about philanthropy,” says Burk. “We need to ask ourselves what religious teaching accomplishes that we might be jeopardy of losing, and how we can build that differently outside of religion itself.”

Education can come from a wide variety of sources. Nazareth points to the work of Abundance Canada as an organization that does significant stewardship education beyond its traditional base. Burk notes that over the last decade Sesame Street has begun a financial literacy program that encourages giving among its priorities. Burk also suggests that broad-based nonprofits such as the United Way or the YWCA might play an educational role for their constituency.

Nazareth believes that faith-based organizations and the federal government both have an increased role to play in teaching about philanthropy. “We need to better engage people in philanthropy in places of worship, teaching members how you give, what the benefits are, and how to upgrade your giving.” On the government side, Nazareth calls for a national CRA initiative to better explain charitable tax receipting and its benefits.

Thinking outside the box

In its initial days, volunteers and donors to Aga Khan Foundation Canada were predominantly part of the Ismaili Muslim community, but the organization made deliberate decisions to engage a broad cross-section of people from diverse backgrounds in accordance with its establishment as a non-denominational organization. To this end, says Shakeel Bharmal, chief operating officer, “We decided we would not actively solicit from those within the community. Instead we asked community members to form the basis of our peer-to-peer fundraising strategy, describing what we do to engage their friends, neighbours and colleagues to engage in our campaigns and work.” This strategy has been highly successful – with a 50% increase in year-over-year numbers of workplace fundraisers between 2016 and 2017, and a 26% increase in people fundraising in workplace groups.

Another group using a creative approach to fundraising is the United Church of Canada. The Church’s Edge Ministries recognized that many of its congregations are “property rich and cash poor” and “face dwindling attendance, shrinking cash reserves and spiralizing expenses.” Rather than panicking or closing doors, the group instead is consulting with individual congregations to look at community partnerships, such as churches becoming a hub for community service or arts groups, and social enterprise initiatives that offer income, use existing resources better, and encourage meaningful involvement with the community and other nonprofits.

Recognizing fundamental facts

Finally, it might be awkward to articulate, but organizations that have benefitted from religious donors might see a temporary increase in funds through bequests as these religious donors give money through their wills. The Mennonite Central Committee, for instance, celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2020, having started by bringing refugees to North America from Ukraine. Many of those people and their children have been lifelong donors to the organization. Cober Bauman says, “While we have a diversified fundraising base, we are focusing on inviting these people to consider naming MCC in their estates.”

“I like to believe that generosity and gratitude are embedded in humanity,” concludes Bharmal. “Even if you don’t believe in a god or pray regularly, it’s still possible to be connected with humanity. It takes more work to unearth those people and give them a path to doing good for the world but it is definitely possible.”

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Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for more than two decades and loves a good story.
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