the shape of leadership

Giving Begets Giving

What a department store Santa got right about generosity

Ron Sellers on May 15, 2023

In the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street, the Santa Claus at Macy’s department store tells a frantic parent where to find an out-of-stock toy — at another store.

The Macy’s sales staff complains about Santa sending customers to competitors. But store owner R.H. Macy receives hundreds of letters from customers expressing their gratitude and loyalty.

As a result, Macy implements a storewide policy of putting customers first, saying, “We’ll be known as the helpful store, the friendly store, the store with a heart, the store that places public service ahead of profits.” He then slyly adds, “And consequently, we’ll make more profits than ever before.”

What does a 76-year-old film have to do with church finances? It relates to how we think about “competition” for donor dollars.

Compassion ministries and other nonprofits look to churchgoers to fund their work. But if people give outside their local churches, will congregations suffer?

This is a concern for many church leaders. They may think, Yes, feeding people in Malawi is important, but so is the work of my church. If congregants give to one, they won’t give to the other.

Studies suggest this fear is unfounded. In reality, it seems giving begets giving.


Inside and Outside

At Grey Matter Research, I started exploring this topic in 2010. We measured not just the amount donors gave over the course of a year, but also their level of generosity (defined as the proportion of their total income they gave away).

As our Heart of the Donor report showed, Americans who financially supported a place of worship were 93% more likely to support other ministries as well.

Church donors gave 14% more to other nonprofit organizations and supported 31% more causes overall. And the more people gave to a place of worship, the more they gave to charities.


Habits of Givers

In 2021, we partnered with Infinity Concepts for a study focusing on evangelical Protestants. The resulting report, The Generosity Factor, revealed a link between giving and other aspects of faith.

The more engaged evangelicals are in their faith — in terms of Bible reading, church attendance, and small group involvement — the more likely they are to support both church and charity and the more generously they give to both.

Evangelicals who read the Bible at least once a week are, on average, a whopping 459% more generous to church and charity than those who rarely or never read the Bible. There is a direct and consistent correlation between more frequent Bible reading and higher levels of generosity.

Note that as spiritual engagement increases, giving and generosity increase to both church and charity, not just to one or the other.

Further, the more generous evangelicals are to one, the more generous they are to the other. Those who give nothing to charities or ministries outside of church give an average of 1.45% of household income to church.

By comparison, the most generous supporters of charities give an average of 5% of their incomes to a local church. Church giving rises as generosity to parachurch organizations and other nonprofits increases.

Maybe the question is not how your church can help charitable organizations raise funds, but how you
can partner in ways that are mutually beneficial.


Parallels in Generosity

Grey Matter conducted another study, in partnership with BBS & Associates. The 2022 report, Understanding Evangelical Mid-level Donors, examines donors who gave at least $1,500 during the previous year to an organization outside of a church.

Even within this narrow population, the story remains the same: There is a direct correlation between generosity to church and generosity to charity.

Among mid-level donors, those who gave less than 3% of their household incomes to charities gave an average of 3.8% to their local congregations. Those who contributed 3–4.9% of their incomes to charities gave an average of 4.5% to church.

Individuals donating 5–7.9% of their incomes to charities gave 7.1% to their churches. And among those giving 8% or more to charities, church contributions averaged an impressive 12.1%.

Again, generosity to charity mirrored church giving. If donating more to charities meant cannibalizing church giving, we would see an inverse relationship between the two: As charitable donations rose, church giving would decline. Instead, we consistently see the opposite.

In other words, a rising tide lifts all boats. As people become more generous, they practice that generosity with charity and church.


What It Means

Is the upshot that churches need to spend more time promoting outside organizations? Not necessarily.

Remember the other impressively strong correlation we see is that the more spiritually engaged people are, the more generous they are inside and outside of church.

There are hundreds of books, studies, plans, and sermons on stewardship. Yet our research finds half of all American evangelicals give less than 1% of their household income to church or charity. The issue with this group may be a lack of meaningful discipleship.

One of the reasons some charities raise billions of dollars annually is that they are experts at communicating with donors. They know how to demonstrate the need through stories, make appeals that resonate rationally and emotionally, build relationships with supporters, and demonstrate results.

Many church leaders struggle in these areas. Bible colleges provide training in biblical exegesis, but rarely in donor development. Some pastors wonder why preaching occasionally about stewardship, publishing the annual budget, and passing an offering plate does little to inspire givers.

Meanwhile, churchgoers often know little about where their offerings go, aside from paying the staff and keeping the lights on. They assume they’re supposed to give something because they attend, and church leaders assume members are giving what they can. The result may be less-than-enthusiastic engagement in giving.

Leaders of parachurch organizations know they must do more than preach. They work hard to form, develop, and retain donor relationships. Otherwise, their funding will dry up. Maintaining and growing financial support requires training and experience church leaders generally lack.

Maybe the question is not how your church can help charitable organizations raise funds, but how you can partner in ways that are mutually beneficial. How can an external organization touch the hearts of your people about the need for, and benefits of, increased giving?

Can a visit by a Christian compassion organization be about more than the needs of refugees? Can it also include a biblical appeal concerning the importance of participating in missions and investing in the work of the Church?

When people learn generosity, they give more — everywhere. Organizations need to teach, demonstrate, and promote stewardship, no matter where the money is going. Increased generosity means more resources for Kingdom building in the local church and beyond.

The more church and parachurch leaders see one another as partners rather than competitors, the more everyone wins.


This article appears in the Spring 2023 issue of Influence magazine.

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