Research on charitable giving routinely points to the fact that those who are more deeply engaged in religion are more likely to give and give more to charitable organizations.

This is the “standard religious-giving story” that many have used to explain how religious giving continues to make up the largest percentage of all charitable giving (31% as measured by Giving USA 2014). And to measure religious engagement, researchers have most often turned to religious affiliation and attendance at religious services. But the question remains whether this “standard religious-giving story” will continue as contexts change.

In their Women Give 2014, the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy examined how the nexus of gender, religion, and age relates to charitable giving, and in the study, they unearthed some outliers from the standard religious-giving story. Young single women who are religiously unaffiliated (“nones”) give roughly two times larger amounts to charitable organizations than women who are affiliated but infrequently attend religious services.

While the majority of women’s giving follows the standard religious giving story (frequency of religious attendance is equated to greater giving), the higher giving of younger “nones” over infrequent attenders breaks the typical pattern. Yet, Women Give 2014 offers more insight than simply this new evidence. The study may be most helpful in bringing gender, religion, and giving together into a single conversation.

Both gender and religion as well as gender and philanthropy are often studied, but the three taken together has been under-explored and remains a rich topic for further research. It is also important to note some of the distinctive methods the study uses to measure women, religion, and giving.

First, they are not including charitable giving to congregations.

They are more interested in assessing how religiosity affects giving to organizations whose primary purpose is other than religious activity or spiritual development.

Second, they build off the 2013 Connected to Give:

Faith Communities study to identify charitable and non-profit organizations as either religiously-identified or not religiously identified organizations (RIOs and NRIOs). In so doing, they are demonstrating the amount of charitable giving going to religiously identified organizations outside of congregations which is often overlooked or labeled as something other than religious giving in the annual charitable giving surveys.

Third, they continue to equate one’s level of engagement with attendance at religious services, but the variance between frequent and infrequent is noticeable.

Attendance at least once a month now makes one a frequent attender. The entire report is worth reading (you can access the full report from the link at the end of this article.

But I was continually led back to questions around the “standard religious-giving” paradigm. Religious affiliation and attendance continue to remain strong predictors of charitable giving, but declining trends in attendance causes me to wonder what the future may hold for religious giving or for the standard paradigm.

Are we seeing generational differences?

Women Give 2014 divides younger and older donors into two categories at the age of 45. That lumps Gen Xers and millennials into the younger set, but I wonder if we might see even more differences by further subdividing generations.

It is worth reconsidering the role of congregations as many see their mission as extending beyond just weekly worship and spiritual development.

As attendance patterns have changed, they themselves are not measuring their success strictly on people in the pew each week, and many share their mission as intimately related to helping people in need or improving communities and neighborhoods. As expectations of attendance and other obligations of religious Americans within local congregations change, they may not be so distinct from other charitable organizations.

The “rise of the nones” -the religious unaffiliated -continues to drive conversations, but we also know that while “nones” may not affiliate with a particular religious tradition or institution, the majority are far from irreligious.

In fact, spiritual and moral values often shape their charitable giving, whether to RIOs or NRIOs. Are “nones” finding social networks outside congregations that are shaping their notions of giving? If so, where are these new networks, how are they formed, and how are they sustained? In reading recent research, while exceptions to the standard religious-giving paradigm are still newsworthy, I’m beginning to wonder if this standard paradigm will continue to capture the context where we now find ourselves. For those of us interested in faith and giving, it is worth continuing to ask new questions of traditional paradigms.


Women Give 2014: New research on women, religion and giving.

University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Online:

Used by permission of the author.




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