Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Money That Flows to Religion

"What was the total amount given to charity last year?" is a familiar question to anyone who's done fundraising training, and a handy motivating tool for fundraising instructors. When the question is posed, those new to the fundraising game guess embarrassingly small numbers. "$10 million", "$2 billion", "$10 billion!!!!" while the instructor writes their guesses on the board. Finally, the answer is revealed to a (mostly) shocked audience. "Over $300 billion was given in the US last year. And guess what folks, this number doesn't drop much during a recession. Is $300 billion enough for you to do your work? Enough for everyone in this room to do their work?! Let's figure out how you can get some of that $300 billion!" And then comes the breakdown of where that money goes, in the form of a handy pie chart.

Obviously there are shifts each year, but in the 5 years I've been looking at these pie charts based on Giving USA studies, the shifts have been minimal. The pies I've seen have 10 slices, give or take. Education and health/human services are two of the largest slices of pie, around 15% each. Animals/Environment (always lumped together) usually fall to the very bottom with about 2%. The largest chunk is always the same, and it's always far above the rest. No less than 1/3 of all charitable giving in the US, more than $100 billion annually, goes to religion. And when I say religion, I don't mean Catholic universities (education) or Jewish hospitals (health), I mean proselytizing and church building.*

$100 billion is pretty darn close to what we need to cut world poverty in half, and it's not been easy to get it. Are mega churches and televangelist salaries the best way to spend our charitable dollars? Does the vatican need your money more than a hungry child? And when the "charitable" work of religion includes lies to prevent condom use in AIDS stricken regions of the planet, I hope most people will agree that at least some of that $100 billion is causing great harm by going to religion instead of going to reputable nonprofits who are providing life saving services.

When the fundraising classes discuss why religion dominates the charitable contributions in this country, lot's of ideas get thrown around. But the inevitable answer landed on is always "because they ask, and they ask every week". I'm not sure if this is the whole answer, but there is no doubt it's a big part of it. People give because they are asked. And churches never hesitate to pass the collection plate.

I wonder if we can grab on to religion's ability to ask and use it to do real good. Here's my idea for the readers: make your own collection plate. Take a dollar from your wallet each Sunday and set it aside for a good cause. Once a year, you've got $52 just waiting to help someone who really needs it.

I know not everyone will do this. But I've taken enough fundraising course to know one thing for certain: the top reason people don't give is because they are never asked. So I'm asking. I'm asking you. Will you give $52 more this year than you gave last year? Will you save $1 a week to help someone truly in need?

List of reputable charities to consider:

If you decide to give, tell us about it.

-Selfish Blogger

*I should mention that I've never actually read the Giving USA report myself - it costs money to get your hands on - so I can't be certain how they classify each category. I'm simply repeating the definitions that my fundraising instructors have used. I assume they are right.


  1. I like the $1 a week idea. I wonder if I can set up a tiny paypal automatic transfer every week to just donate automatically. I sure wont miss that $1 a week, and it would be done automatically so I wont forget. I shall look into this...

  2. What's worse is that the top 33% of those recipients aren't required to (and don't) release their financial information including where that spendingn goes.

    Wheras the other nine slices tend to volunteer their information to organizations like Charity Navigator.

  3. I will give $52! I will give it to UNICEF or Doctors without Borders.

    I'd add, though, that some churches do good things. The Unitarian Universalists, for example, provide a nice community that doesn't threaten you with eternal damnation, are devoted to their communities, and generally contribute to wonderful causes like abolishing capital punishment and torture, and same-sex marriage equality. I'd say they are much more worthy of my money than, say, the Los Angeles Ballet.


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