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Churches, Nonprofits Face Financially Troubled Future

It is no secret that many churches and other charities are financially troubled—and not only because of a downturn in the economy.
There has been a documented downward trend in personal giving, especially to churches, during the last several decades.

While the U.S. is one of the most generous nations in the world, and while actual total dollar giving may not always be in a downward spiral, charitable financial giving by the average American weakens.

Some of us take heart in the recent announcements by several billionaires that they will give away much of their fortunes before they die.

We may dream of what it might be like if our favorite charity or church could be on the receiving end of that generosity.

However, that will not be the case for most of us. Even if it were, those billions won’t offset the current national trends.

I confess that I am increasingly frustrated with many of the charities to which I give.

I have to assume they are in financial pinches and must operate by solicitation efforts that have proven successful, but the turnaround time between a gift given and the next plea is getting shorter and shorter.

I’ve even considered not giving to some charities so that I am not besieged for the foreseeable future with more voluminous and more desperate pleas.

I really think there are times when less is more, which some of the charities I have supported don’t seem to realize.

I would like to think that there will be a reversal of charitable fortunes if and when the current recessed economy stabilizes. Historical trends raise real questions about that hope.

Simply stated, there are four primary things a person can legitimately do with money—acquire, spend, save and give.

Each generation tends to do some of these with more success, some of these with mediocre success, and some of these poorly.

My grandparents earned little, spent little, saved little and gave little away. My parent’s generation earned much more, spent a relatively small percentage of their incomes, saved a rather substantial part of their earnings and gave a substantial part away.

With each successive generation, earning, spending, saving and giving have ebbed and flowed.

My children’s generation seems caught in a time of relatively lower earnings, undisciplined spending, and with negligible saving and charitable giving.

When I talk of charitable giving from the pulpit and to individuals, especially to younger individuals, it is fairly common to hear, “We don’t have it.”

Sadly, most Americans today have such indiscriminate spending habits that they are always financially strapped.

Thus, saving and giving are last in importance. To be sure, part of the issue is the economy. Part of it is simply a matter of priorities.

On a more positive note, charitable giving by Americans hovers around $300 billion annually, or about $1,000 per citizen.

By comparison, we spend about $60 billion annually on our pets, $100 billion annually on alcohol, and a whopping $750 billion annually on entertainment.

Back to priorities, the next time you go see a movie, check out the approximate median age of attendees.

It is disheartening and sobering when I, a statistically rare tithing moderate, read who gives what and why.

In Arthur Brooks’ book, “Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism,” liberal Americans are indicted for a poor record of charitable giving.

Even when income is taken into consideration, charitable giving by liberal Americans pales in comparison to that of conservatives.

Many politicians on both sides of the aisle ought to be ashamed of themselves and their charitable giving, or lack thereof, especially when they tout themselves as really caring for the disadvantaged and are working to help the poor.

Some apparently think generosity only counts when they are making speeches, trying to set public policy and spending other people’s money.

It is noteworthy that, according to Brooks’ book, the three primary underpinnings to individual generosity are religious participation, solid family structure and, dare I say it, more conservative political views.

Is there a way to conclude this?

To be sure, some charitable entities will close shop doors. Others will reprioritize, merge and become more specific in their mission.

Some will tighten their belts, reorganize, revision and do other such things, which are often code language for money being short.

Others will become more competitive and unapologetically try to gain a larger share of limited charitable dollars.

Of course, all this and more have been happening as charities and churches evolve to face current fiscal and missional realities.

I have a couple of other hopes, though.

One is that existing charities will not presume on their donors or continually besiege them with pleas.

The other is that new generations of Americans will discover the immeasurable joy and necessity of giving.

Reggie Warren is pastor of Union Hill Baptist Church in Brookneal, Virginia, and a former member of the board of directors of the Baptist Center for Ethics.