The connections between religion and philanthropy are abundant and diverse. Some are spiritual, some psychological, some economic, and some institutional. There are at least four major elements of the relationship between religion and philanthropy that merit examination. First, and perhaps most importantly, religion appears to be a primary motivator of philanthropic behavior, of giving and volunteering for the benefit of others. This phenomenon has been demonstrated by multiple studies (Hodgkinson & Weitzman, 1988, 90, 92, 94, 96). Second, religious institutions, especially congregations, are both the most common recipients of such giving and among the important sources of philanthropic funding for other causes. Other studies and reports clearly document this (Kaplan 2000 , Hodgkinson & Weitzman, 1993). Third, scholars have illuminated the specific roles of religion in shaping particular modes of and approaches to philanthropic and voluntary action; and even in contributing the formation of the institutional character of American society (Hall, 1984 & 1990; Jeavons, 1994). Finally, in addition to these more immediate, visible impacts of religion on philanthropy, some argue that organized religion, at least in Europe and the U.S., is primarily responsible for creating the “social space” for the development of an “independent sector” in Western democratic cultures (Adams, 1986; Stackhouse, 1990).
In each of these matters it is important for those with an interest in philanthropic and voluntary behavior in broader terms to understand the particular effects of religion, because religious tenets and practices have shaped, and in many cases strengthened, such activity.Religious Beliefs and Practices as Motivational Factors in Giving
Those who are familiar with the teachings of the Bible, the Koran, and other scriptures of the major religions will not be surprised to hear research shows that persons with strong affiliations with and experiences in these religious traditions are more generous givers. The studies of the INDEPENDENT SECTOR and others have demonstrated that those who are active in worshipping communities (congregations) of various types are on the whole more likely to give to a variety of charitable causes, and to give more to charity overall, than those who are not.
For example, 74% of those who participate at least occasionally in worship services give to charity, while only 50% of those who never attend do so; and the more often one attends the more likely one is to giving. The percentage of income given to charities by individuals correlates positively with frequency of attendance at worship. While the percent of household income for given to charity averages 6% for those who never attend worship, it averages 1.2% for those who attend once or twice a month, and 2.9% for those who attend worship services weekly. (Figures from Hodgkinson & Weitzman, 1996.)
It should also be noted that the contributions from religiously active individuals and households go not only to the congregations or religious institutions of which they are members, but also to a broad range of charitable causes. Indeed, giving from such persons and households accounted for more than 90% of all the dollars given by individuals to charities in the U.S. in 1995. Finally, participants in religion tend to volunteer more than non-participants, giving more of their time as well as their money.
These data and others demonstrate that affiliation with and involvement in a religious community tends to increase generosity markedly. As one of these reports says, “The incidence of religious involvement and attendance at religious services is thus a predictor of the total level of giving and volunteering” (Hodgkinson & Weitzman, 1996, p.5).
The reasons for this are many and complex, and need to be better understood. Among them, however, is the plain fact that all these traditions teach and encourage particular practices of and approaches to giving as an element of “living the faith.”
To cite but one example, probably the best known of these is “tithing.” This practice, which has its roots in the Old Testament, involves giving 10% of one's income (or wealth) to charity. As originally conceived in the Hebraic tradition the practice took a number of forms. In Genesis 28:10-22 Jacob promises to give back to God “a tithe” of all he has (or will receive) in recognition of God's blessings to him. In Chapters 12 and 14 of Deuteronomy the Israelites are instructed to offer a tenth of their produce (or income) as a contribution to support the Temple and the priests, their community, and “the widows and the orphans” – i.e., those in need in their midst. In Deuteronomy 26, the tithe is again spoken of a gift to be made, in this case of the “first fruits” of the harvest, as a sign of thanksgiving.
There is evidence that early Christians saw the tithe (10%) as a minimum level of giving to the church and the needs of the poor to be expected of all the faithful. Jesus moves away from such prescriptions, but exhorts his followers to be even more generous by his teaching through stories like that of “the widow's mite” (Mark 12:41-44). And the Apostle Paul follows in this vein, praising those who “give beyond their means” (2Cor. 8:3) and are “cheerful givers”(2Cor. 9:7)
In addition to the Judeo-Christian tradition of tithing, other important examples of religious teaching regarding giving could be cited. Most prominently, giving alms to care for those less fortunate is one of the five “pillars” (essential practices) of Islam.
Beyond the impact of specific teachings, there are other reasons religious persons tend to be more generous. Those who participate in religious congregations also generally see giving modeled on a regular basis as a public act, and we know giving is a learned behavior. Finally, it would appear that those who are active in congregations often get to see the immediate positive effects of their giving – in a way that is often not true with giving to and through other kinds of charities – and the psychological and spiritual satisfaction in that experience may reinforce and heighten their generosity further.Religious Institutions as Both Recipients and Sources of Giving
Annual reports of the AAFRC Trust for Philanthropy in Giving USA (Kaplan ) , and the National Council of Churches in Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches (Lindner, 1998, 99, 2000), prove the remarkable generosity of Americans to religious bodies – congregations, denominations, religious orders, and such. These organizations are, as a group, the largest beneficiaries of charitable giving in the U.S. According to Giving USA , over the last ten years donations to “religion” – which category includes churches and other explicitly religious institutions – account for roughly 45% of all charitable giving by individuals. This is probably a conservative figure. If one combines the gifts made by individuals to other types of institutions with religious roots and characteristics – like some colleges, social service agencies, hospitals, and the like – with gifts to congregations and denominations, it appears that religious causes and activities could be the recipients of as much as two-thirds of charitable donations.
Less often recognized is the fact the religious congregations are also sponsors and very significant sources of funding for other charitable and philanthropic activity. Although some scholars have argued that congregations should be seen as “member benefit organizations” (rather than “public benefit”) – meaning as bodies that largely serve only their own members, there is ample evidence these bodies serve many needs in their wider communities and people beyond their own membership. In some communities, congregations, or the programs they sponsor directly (and sometimes house in their own buildings) are the most common providers of daycare for young people, elder care, after school recreation, and even emergency food and clothing.
In fact, 24% of the budgets of congregations (on average) are spent on contributions to “non-religious activities” that often serve many people outside their membership; or are given away to other organizations in the community to offer needed services to individuals who are not members. Typically, 10% to 15% of a congregation's budget goes to other organizations in the form of donations (Hodgkinson & Weitzman, 1993, pp. 77-80).
Recent studies have documented the extraordinary role religious congregations play in actually housing and delivering social services, health services, recreation, and even arts programs in communities where such services and programs are most needed, and other nonprofits are least present. (See Cohen & Jaeger, 1998; Cnaan, 1999). So the role of religious organizations as both financial supporters and providers of social (and other) services is surely noteworthy.
Religion as a Critical Influence on Forms of Philanthropic and Voluntary Organizations
Religion has also played a key role in shaping particular practices and institutional forms of philanthropic and voluntary organizations in the U.S. First of all, as several historians have observed, congregations were the archetype for voluntary, membership organizations in this country. In many localities congregations were the first such institutions, providing a model for organizing communal activity that could be adopted and adapted for other public, but non-religious purposes (Adams, 1986).
Second, programs and organizations growing out of congregations, such as women's auxiliaries and benevolent societies, provided the organizational foundations for many local social welfare and civic organizations that continue today as secular agencies. Indeed, questions about the secular versus the religious control and character of such social welfare agencies loomed large at the time of the emergence of charitable organization societies and the scientific philanthropy movement, in the second half of the nineteenth century. Ironically, some of the key features of the new ‘scientific' approaches to charity – like personal visitation and assessment of individuals' needs – had their origins in practices of the women's auxiliaries (Bremner, 1956; Hall, 1990).
Third, religious bodies developed the models for the first large, national voluntary agencies in the early to mid-1800's in the forms of various missionary, Bible, and tract societies that came to be know as the “Benevolent Empire” (Hall, 1984; Bremner, 1988). The importance of these organizations in demonstrating the potential power and beginning to develop the organizational mechanics for such large voluntary agencies should not go unnoticed. So, in yet another way, the function of religion, or at least religious organizations, has been very important to philanthropic practice more broadly understood.
Religion as a Force in the Creation of Social Space for Voluntary Action & Organization
Finally, but certainly not least importantly, religion has played a foundational role in making possible the existence of a politically independent, nonprofit or voluntary sector. Some scholars have noted it seems odd that governments should have come to allow privately controlled groups and organizations to take a major role in the public sphere – shaping public policy, advocating for causes, delivering services – especially when they could do that in ways that might put them in competition with or opposition to government itself. Yet this is a most prominent as a feature of the political economy of the United States, and also common in western Europe; and provides the essential foundation for philanthropic and voluntary activity as we know it.
Some scholars have contended that religion played the primary role in creating the “social space” for these organizations. They have argued that advocates of “marginalized faiths” rebelling against established religions in Europe and the colonies secured the right of voluntary association for themselves in working (and often suffering) for freedom of religion. As one scholar explains it, “In the name of God they claimed the right to be, to organize, to care for neighbor, and to set forth their views publicly. … What religious communities fought for was eventually institutionalized: The right of people to form intentional religious associations outside established [i.e. state-controlled] religion was more and more tolerated, acknowledged, celebrated, and subsequently expanded to include non-religious charitable and ethical organizations” (Stackhouse, 1990, pp.25-26).
This judgment about the role of religion seems to be confirmed when one looks at the special legal mechanisms – like the ‘corporation sole' – that have been created to deal with the special circumstances of churches. These legal concepts treat religion as (essentially) a separate sphere of public activity allowed to exist within civil society while being largely beyond government control or regulation (Dane, 1998). While the secular voluntary nonprofit sector is subject to more government scrutiny and regulation, it does seem that freedom of private philanthropic and voluntary organizations to operate with considerable independence of government control while pursuing public purposes derives from the precedent created by the churches.Bibliography
Adams, James Luther. “The Voluntary Principle in the Forming of American Religion.” In J. Ronald Engel, ed. Voluntary Associations: Socio-Cultural Analysis and Theological Interpretation . Chicago: Exploration Press, 1986
Bremner, Robert H. 1956. “‘Scientific Philanthropy,' 1873-1893.” Social Service Review , 30, 168-73.
------------. 1988. American Philanthropy , 2 nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
Cnaan, Ram. 1999. The Newer Deal: Social Work and Religion in Partnership . New York: Columbia University Press.
Cohen, Diane & A. Robert Jaeger. 1998. Sacred Places at Risk: New Evidence on How Endangered Older and Synagogues Churches Serve Communities . Philadelphia: Partners for Sacred Places.
Dane, Perry. 1998. “The Corporate Sole and the Encounter of Law and Church.” In Jay Demerath, ed. Sacred Companies . New York: Oxford University Press,
Hall, Peter Dobkin. 1984. The Organization of American Culture . New York: New York University Press.
-----------. 1990. “The History of Religious Philanthropy in America.” In Robert Wuthnow & Virginia Hodgkinson, eds. Faith and Philanthropy in America . Washington, DC: INDEPENDENT SECTOR.
Hodgkinson, Virginia. & Murray Weitzman, eds. 1986-1996, biannual. Giving and Volunteering in the United States . Washington, DC: Independent Sector.
Hodgkinson, Virginia. & Murray Weitzman, eds. 1993. From Belief to Commitment: The Community Service Activities and Finances of Religious Congregations in the United States . Washington, DC: INDEPENDENT SECTOR.
Kaplan, Ann E., ed. 1994, 1996-2000. Giving USA . New York: AAFRC Trust for Philanthropy.
Lindner, Eileen, ed. 1998-2000. Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches ; New York: Abingdon Press.
Stackhouse, Max L. 1990. “Religion and the Social Space for Voluntary Institutions.” In Robert Wuthnow & Virginia Hodgkinson, eds. Faith and Philanthropy in America . Washington, DC: INDEPENDENT SECTOR.
Learning to Give wishes to express appreciation to Dr. Dwight Burlingame, editor/author of Philanthropy in America, a Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia of Philanthropy Information, and the publisher ABC-CLIO for graciously sharing this resource information with Learning to Give. The complete encyclopedia may be purchased through ABC-CLIO.