Friday Rant: Why Must Charitable Giving Correlate with Religiosity?

To say that recent times have been fraught with economic uncertainty is probably one of the biggest understatements of the past two years. Yet despite dramatically reduced consumer spending, Americans continue to be generous when it comes to donating dollars to charitable causes. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, cited in today's WSJ , "charities report an 11% drop in contributions in the past year ... [with] one big exception: Charitable contributions to religious groups dropped by only 0.1% from 2007 to 2009." And while this discrepancy may be partially attributable to an almost equally dogged high rate of unemployment, it's not likely that members of religious groups have a disparate proportion of unemployed constituents. So what gives?

We could presume that because active members of religious groups "answer to a higher power" -- or are somehow more empathetic and socially conscious -- than those who aren't might account for this variance in personal spend, but I'm not so sure. The author's of the The Journal's column, Messrs Campbell and Putnam who are professors at Notre Dame and Harvard, and also co-authors of "American grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us", offer some fascinating statistics and insights.

Campbell and Putnam claim that "80% of all Americans reported having made a charitable contribution in the previous year ... [and] the religious contributed more than others. Of the most secular fifth of Americans, two-thirds said they gave money to charity in the previous year ... an impressive number, but it pales next to the 94% of the most religious fifth who reported making a charitable donation." And on average "those in the most religious fifth donate $3,000 to charity annually [while] those in the most secular fifth give approximately $1,000." And even when controlling for household income "religious Americans are four times as generous as their secular neighbors, even as they are a little less affluent than secular Americans ... These results hold up even after accounting for a wide array of other factors known to influence charitable donations, such as income, age, education, marital status, gender and race." And depending upon specific faith groups, some give "more to both religious and secular causes".

It's also not surprising that "roughly three-quarters of charity given by highly religious Americans is indeed channeled toward religion". But what's especially interesting -- and the big rub in this analysis -- is their claim that "religiosity provides such a boost to financial giving overall that the most religious Americans actually give more money to secular causes than do secular Americans." The big takeaway may be found in their proposition that "this may be because the primary driver of religious Americans' giving is the social networks formed at their churches, synagogues and mosques."

So if you're among those Americans who are non or a-religious -- yet likely an active social networker -- speak up. Talk about causes and charities that you believe in that might move some of your more myopic peers to consider thinking outside themselves. Given the increasing advent of online social networking as a modern substitute for geographic community, if "religious American's" high rate of giving isn't attributable to the specific religious or political beliefs that they hold, but to the friends with whom they worship", then the opportunity exists to dramatically improve the quality of life for all Americans without relying upon further government intervention and spending. And more specifically for causes that we individually believe worthy.

William Busch

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