religion-based organizations

Giving to religion-based organizations often tops lists of philanthropic statistics. In fact, in the recent Giving USA 2020 report, donors gave more than $131 billion to religion-based organizations in the United States in 2020. 

Nonprofit professionals working in this sector of philanthropy cite a strong belief in their organization’s mission and daily activities as critical to continuing to make an impact, even in challenging times. For these people working in faith-based organizations, regardless of denomination, this work can also take on a highly personal meaning, not only for themselves, but also for the donors they work alongside.

Unique Opportunities for Those Working for Religion-Based Organizations

“The unique opportunities offered working in faith-based organizations is that we intentionally entertain the donors’ answer to the question of ‘why’ should a donor give?” said Cory Howat, Executive Director of the Catholic Community Foundation in New Orleans, Louisiana. “We know that the generosity is very important to making an impactful gift, but that getting to the motivation of that generosity for a donor is sustaining to a long-term relationship.”

That motivation is often centered in a desire to improve communities, said Seth J. Katzen, President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Delaware.

“All faith-based nonprofits strive to make the world a better place (in Hebrew we say, tikkun olam—a repairing of the world) that serves as our sacred mission,” Katzen said. “As Jews, we are all responsible one for the other but this concept transcends all of humanity—we work with our interfaith brothers and sisters to build community together.”

In fact, he added, a strong moral compass is what draws many people to the sector.

“There is nothing more empowering than to see the good work we do every day—we are each improving the lives of others, many who we don’t know nor know us—but we take considerable pride in making a positive difference every day,” Katzen said.

This desire to help others is also expressed in the philanthropy of those practicing Islam. As noted in “American Muslim Philanthropy: A Data-Driven Comparative Profile,” a report authored by Faiqa Mahmood in 2019 via The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, “The strongest motivations for American Muslims are a feeling that those with more should give to those with less and a sense of religious duty or obligation.” 

However, raising funds for these organizations can present unique challenges. For example, some foundations or organizations don’t support faith or religion-based organizations, said Gillian Doucet Campbell, Director of Stewardship and Development for the Anglican Diocese of Niagara in Ontario, Canada.

Also, Doucet Campbell said that, depending on the structure of the organization, there’s sometimes a misguided belief that a built-in pipeline of giving is automatic. 

“While it is true that the Anglican Diocese of Niagara is fortunate enough to be able to provide some funding support for various programs and ministries, they do not have ‘pools of money’ and operate on a shoe-string budget as many other groups do,” she said. “Like other older nonprofits and charities, the diocese does have some endowments, but they are designated for very specific purposes.”   

Doucet Campbell also said that more often than during her work in non-faith-based organizations, she’s encountered a “voluntarist mindset,” where some don’t understand operating costs of the organization, such as staff salaries, are necessary to keep the organization moving forward. 

Another challenge is how to address a crisis in the organization. Howat said this offers a different layer of complexity than in other nonprofits.

“The added grace and challenge with faith-based organizations is the emotion that is connected with faith-based giving. Faith-based giving can be deeply reflective of a person’s belief. These beliefs can obviously vary and have to be treated with trust and respect, but it also requires more organizational staff hours to journey with individuals in that way,” he said.

Pandemic Impact

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, many nonprofits were impacted by stay-home orders. This especially impacted organizations where philanthropy is a part of worship services.

“Suddenly, churches had to create ways to give online. Some parishes already had websites with some online giving capabilities, but many were not ready,” said Doucet Campbell. “For the first few months of the pandemic, I was instructing parishes how to create ways to give online and how to promote online giving.”

According to Howat, the shift to more immediate electronic communications meant shifting resources and efforts into maximizing their impact.

“No longer can just an email work, but donor-focused, impact-oriented and visually pleasing communications are a must. This also means data is king. If your data is no good, then your communications will be less than stellar as they are connected; this stands true for donor relations and your CRM,” he said.

Additionally, strategic volunteer leadership engagement allowed organizations to focus their outreach, said Muhi Khwaja, co-founder of the American Muslim Community Foundation (AMCF). This included “creating a donor portfolio for them, and asking them to also reach out to their personal networks.”

In some cases, the opportunity existed for relief fundraising.

“Rather than work on fundraising for each parish, a Pandemic Response Fund was created through the diocese,” said Doucet Campbell, who worked to promote the fund to parishes and parishioners. She successfully solicited a matching grant from a vendor for Giving Tuesday 2020 as part of their ongoing fundraising efforts.

Khwaja shared that AMCF’s COVID-19 Response Fund for Nonprofits raised $360,000 in 2020, which was distributed to more than 60 organizations. Additionally, the foundation is now focusing on giving circles, with the American Muslim Women’s Giving Circle launched earlier this year, and another planned to focus on interfaith initiatives. You can read more about these and the foundation’s efforts in this piece by Khwaja for the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. 

Moving out of the Pandemic

How do colleagues in faith-based fundraising plan to use the lessons learned in the past year or so in their future work with donors? The value of connection and communication is high on the list.

“Even if donors are giving less or not at all, continue to stay connected,” said Doucet Campbell. “Once this pandemic is done and the economy begins to stabilize, our donors may remember that we stayed in contact and the impact we had during the pandemic as we pivoted.

“Early research being collected from thousands of churches of various denominations across the U.S. is showing that returning methodically to in-person services, there seems to be a window of opportunity to make substantive and positive change. Church attendees and church leaders responded that they are seeing people coming back more unified, more receptive to change, and their local communities—those who don’t attend church—are more open to partner(ing) with churches. The research done by some Canadian charitable organizations both large and small (is) finding that as we think about a post-COVID time it is bringing hope. It is also bringing a focus and even excitement to build back better,” she said.

Also, increased opportunities emerged and will continue to exist for people across multiple faiths to collaborate, Khwaja said.

“There’s a good opportunity for faith-based communities to give together. American Muslim Community Foundation hosts the Interfaith Giving Circle Confronting Hate and is looking to expand its membership across the country. Donors from diverse backgrounds can give together and learn about various causes that work towards promoting understanding,” he said.

Katzen agreed. 

“During these challenging times, we have come together for a virtual Interfaith Unity Healing Services as well as food pantry collections, hosting blood drives at our Jewish Community Center, and simply lending a helping hand in good times and in challenging times,” Katzen said.

In general, Howat encouraged colleagues to move forward and not try to simply pivot back to the way things were. 

“Adjust to how it is now and use the age-old advice: Reach a donor how you would want to be reached…the medium has just changed a little,” he said.

Finally, Katzen suggested staying the course.

“Persistence is a virtue. We are all struggling personally and professionally, but it is important to stay positive and face adversity head on,” he said.

Nonprofit Sustainability

Lisa M. Chmiola, M.S., CFRE
Lisa M. Chmiola, M.S., CFRE, has nearly 20 years in philanthropic development experience. She has served in major and planned giving roles in education (public and private) and religious institutions, following initial career experience in event-based philanthropy. An AFP Master Trainer since 2014, Lisa has presented at four AFP International Conferences, and a variety of AFP and other industry association regional conferences, chapter meetings, and webinars. She also serves as an adjunct instructor in Rice University’s Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership. As Chief Fablanthropist for Fablanthropy (the intersection of fabulous and philanthropy), she is available for consulting, training, and speaking opportunities. Lisa also is an active volunteer, serving on the board of the AFP New Orleans chapter and the U.S. Government Relations committee for AFP International, a board member of the National Association of Charitable Gift Planners (and past president of the Houston chapter), a sustaining member of the Junior League, and a graduate of Leadership Houston. Additionally, she has co-authored several pieces for AFP’s Advancing Philanthropy magazine. Lisa is the proud mom of Ava, a Mini Schnauzer with her own social media presence (@avalynndog).