10/09/2013 04:21 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Static State of Philanthropy (Part 2)

In the first post in this series, we introduced the topic of giving and that nagging issue that it isn't growing as a percent of household income. That's disturbing, and we wanted to figure out why. So we turned to nonprofit expert Carol Rhine to figure out what was going on. She mentioned three trends, the first of which is about religion:

To me, many Americans learn philanthropy from houses of worship. Your mother gives you a quarter or a dollar -- or maybe a $5 check -- to put in the collection plate each Sunday. Week after week, you see giving in action, and this leads you to repeat it as you get older and have your own money. But attendance within houses of worship in the Judeo-Christian tradition is on the decline, which means fewer people are engaging in this very simple but compelling act that is the basis for tradition.

A quick survey of attendance data from religious bodies in the United States shows that fewer people, indeed, are making it a habit of attending church or temple. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Episcopal Church both reported declines between 54,000 and 63,000 members according to the most recent reports available, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church saw a decline (from 2010 to 2011) of more than 212,000 members. The one religion that appears to be bucking this trend is the Islamic faith, with the number of mosques increasing by 900 in the past decade (to more than 2,100 centers in 2010). David Brooks, a South Carolina-based pastor, echoes Carol's concerns about giving, seeing forces at work in his congregation that have had unintended consequences.

We offer 'sustained giving' in our church, which allows people to give through a direct draft on their bank accounts. The real irony is that, as we embrace electronic giving, we remove the tangible display that teaches others that giving is a part of our community. We don't touch the offering plate, and the act of giving as a part of worship disappears. The electronic process blunts the connection between my giving and my worship.

With giving already such an abstract concept, shifting it to something that happens behind the scenes -- or at least away from the community gathering -- means we "lose a tangible teaching moment in how we form identity. When we see giving happen, it becomes something we share with our peers and adopt as a part of ourselves."

As David has seen, when you lose the connection between the community and the act of making a donation, overall giving often goes down. "Newcomers join your group or congregation and pick up on the non-verbal clues -- not seeing people putting money in the plate each week and assuming it's ok if they don't either." The same applies to nonprofits in general. If those who care about you most deeply aren't visibly supporting your organization, how will others see it? We have become, David notes, the world Robert Putnam described so aptly in his pivotal work, Bowling Alone, which analyzed the shift in culture from front-porch engagement to independent, private action -- a community that does not engage as a group.

Our next post will explore Carol's second hypothesis on the static state of philanthropy -- fewer people are giving their time.