The Fundraising Executive

FAITH-BASED PHILANTHROPY: Appealing to the Devout Affluent

By Eddie Thompson | December 2, 2015 | Donor Communications

Praying-Hand---moneyThrough the years, my observation has been that people of faith are extremely consistent and usually very generous givers. Of course, believers don’t have an exclusive corner on compassion or philanthropy. I’ve worked on estate plans for organizational donors who, in addition to being self-declared atheists, were incredibly thoughtful, compassionate, and generous. Whether people of faith are more generous than non-believers—or vice versa—is not the point. This blog post is about the unique concerns that faith-based givers bring to the table and what fundraisers need to keep in mind when appealing to them.

There are three basic similarities among average faith-based givers.

First of all, most faith-based donors (especially Christians) are theologically predisposed to be habitual givers. Tithing is a tradition among Jews and Christians that goes back several thousand years. In some congregations, habitual giving as a percentage of income is reinforced each week with a brief offering message.

Secondly, faith-based givers are deeply scripted with the idea of reciprocity—that is, giving in response to another’s gift. This is especially true among Christians, the focal point of their faith and worship being that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son (John 3:16).

Thirdly, there’s a deeply imbedded concept of stewardship—that everything we have has been given to us by God. In the end, God will call everyone to give an exacting account for what they have done with the time, talents, and resources they have been given.

It supports another idea about wealth and spirituality—that increased wealth doesn’t make one a better or worse person; it only magnifies and empowers what is already in a person’s heart.

Beyond those three similarities, the giving perceptions and motivations of faith-based givers diverge significantly based on religious traditions, giving capacity, and/or the level of personal devotion. That’s way too many pathways to follow in a short blog post. This article focuses on one particular group of faith-based donors with two main characteristics.

1) Those who are very devout and very serious about their relationship with God

2) Those who have very high giving capacity

One of those characteristics is often a function of the other. For instance, those with moderate incomes may give with uncommon generosity because of their deeply committed devotional lives. They simply love giving more than acquiring and create a lifestyle to accommodate their generosity. On the other hand, there are believers whose wealth and giving capacity has so increased that it’s actually made them more spiritual. That’s counterintuitive to many who think that increased wealth always corrupts. However, it supports another idea about wealth and spirituality—that increased wealth doesn’t make one a better or worse person; it only magnifies and empowers what is already in a person’s heart.

Below are a few general observations about the giving motivations of those I’ll refer to as the “devout affluent.”

1. HYPERSENSE OF STEWARDSHIP: As wealth increases for the devout affluent, so does their sense of stewardship. In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus tells a story about a man going on a long journey and entrusting all his possessions (talents) to servants. Upon his return he calls them all to give an account and concludes with these words:

“From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more” (Luke 12:48).

The devout affluent’s sense of accountability to God for spending and giving is not a theological construct but a very tangible reality. They’ll often refer to assets under their control as “God’s money,” a reference to their sense of stewardship.

They (the spiritually devout), too, may feel empowered as change agents, but many feel a corresponding sense of spiritual accountability—a hyper-sense of stewardship.

Ultra-high capacity donors (both secular and religious) have a sense of what Boston College sociologist, Dr. Paul Schervish, calls “hyper-agency” (see previous post, Wealth and Hyper-agency). By virtue of their wealth they’ve developed an uncommon sense of access to power and the potential to impose their will on society. They feel empowered not just to win the game but change the rules to ensure that they do. The spiritually devoted with very high giving capacities feel this too, but often in a different way. They, too, may feel empowered as change agents, but many feel a corresponding sense of spiritual accountability—a hyper-sense of stewardship.

Tip for Fundraisers: Be careful of assuming you understand high net-worth religious donors simply because you have a similar religions background and/or spiritual experience. The hyper-sense of stewardship among the devout affluent is very real, and they feel it in a way that average (middle or upper middle class) Christians do not.

2. GIVING DECISIONS: The devout affluent make giving decisions in a manner that is at times baffling to secular fundraisers. Most donors evaluate a gift or a grant by evaluating an organization’s mission and performance metrics (fundraising efficiency and program effectiveness). The devout affluent do that too but often end the conversation by saying, “We’ll pray about it.” This is not just a put-off to the fundraiser or a way of saying, “We’ll think about it.” If they’re like many of the devout affluent I have known through the years, they really mean it. Their giving decision is going to come out of their devotional time as response to what they sense God wants them to do with “His money.”

Tip for Fundraisers: Occasionally, the only reason for their decision to give or not to give is that it’s what they “feel led to do.” If they don’t feel led to give, it doesn’t mean they won’t the next time. So, don’t get too discouraged if they decline or become too presumptuous about future donations if they say yes.

3. GIVING DIVERSITY: As I’ve already said, believers in general, particularly those from a Judeo-Christian tradition are theologically conditioned to give habitually as a percentage of income. Believers give regularly to their church or synagogue and regularly to various causes. It’s important to note, however, that tithing is irrelevant to most devout affluent because 1) they’re giving far more than a tithe (ten percent), 2) they prefer their local congregation not to be so heavily dependent on them, and 3) they often give out of assets rather than income.

Tip for Fundraisers: Don’t assume the devout affluent give only to faith-based causes. Many I have known give very generously to non-faith based organizations like the American Cancer Society, Boys & Girls Clubs, and the Red Cross, as well as secular universities and hospital foundations.

4. UNCHARACTERISTLY OPTIMISTIC: Christian donors as a whole fall into two general categories based on their view of the end times. Some believe the end times are upon us and that the world is destined to get worse and worse. Not much potential there for perpetual endowments. Others acknowledge the problems of the present but believe they can make the world a better place through their giving. (See OPTIMISM: Ben Franklin and the 200-Year Endowments). The good news is that the devout affluent I’ve known through the years are almost all optimists.

Tip for Fundraisers: A funding appeal dominated by stats and anecdotes on social and moral decline might appeal to general faith-based donors but might miss the mark with the devout affluent. An appeal to possibilities might be more appropriate for those who are more optimistic and see themselves as change agents for good.

GIVING AWAY A SIGNIFICANT amount of money each year can be thrilling. It’s also a tedious endeavor that quickly becomes an arduous task. That’s true for all major donors. If, however, you’re one of the devout affluent with a hyper-sense of stewardship, the joy and burden of giving are both ratcheted up. Fundraisers who understand this, who demonstrate trustworthiness, and who are genuinely donor-centered can become their best allies.

Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.

Copyright 2015, R. Edward Thompson