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Who Are The "Nones" and Why Should Nonprofits Care?


In my previous career, I worked almost exclusively with churches. One of the reasons I left that industry was my observation that church membership is experiencing a fairly dramatic reduction in all but a few select denominations. I took the time (6 months) to wade through the incredibly insightful “Amazing Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us” by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell.

In the book, the authors describe a type of believer called the “None.”

Nones are those people from different walks of life who do not self-identify as belonging to any particular Christian denomination, but who do profess to be Christian. The reasons for this lack of self-identification are many. Without turning this blog too political, the most oft-cited reasons for turning away are the church’s views on certain social issues.

Several studies done on these Nones cited in Putnam and Campbell’s book have indicated they realize that their local churches may be more aligned with their own thoughts and beliefs, but these Nones are not happy that their tithing money is then sent to the central denomination office (Presbytery and Synod for Presbyterians, Conference for Methodists, Diocese for Catholics and so on). These people believe that while their local churches might hold similar beliefs and values, the Conferences, Dioceses and so on do not, and they do not want their money going to something they do not believe in.

What does this have to do with you, the humble, local nonprofit?

Well, these Nones are on the rise.

As of yet, they are not suddenly changing course and heading back to church. This means that their tithing dollars are not being sent to the local church.

Researcher Melissa Brown of Melissa S Brown & Associates, LLC a primary author of the The Philanthropy Panel Study (PPS) found that ore than 40% of the households give to some kind of religious purpose in the United States. In addition, the amount of causes a household supports is directly tied to their income. Even high earners ($100k and up) only support three or four organizations – one of them is probably going to be a church, and one of them is going to be a school. So while there is typically only one open spot for a nonprofit, Nones may have two open spots.

Nones often feel very strongly about social justice issues and would love to support a local charity that shares their ideals and beliefs. Independent nonprofits with a religious or spiritually-flavored mission, and even independent missionaries, may be at an even greater advantage.

So tell THAT story.

It’s not about specifically targeting the Nones; they are out there and are probably already interacting with you on some level. Just be aware that they are there, and are probably looking at least passively – if not actively – for an opportunity to volunteer with or donate to an organization such as yours.

So communicate your mission, why you exist and what your goals are clearly. Don’t talk about your building campaign in terms of the office space it will help with, or the meeting space it will create; talk about the time and money the new building will free up because you won’t have to search for meeting space, or rent something out; this freed up money can be used to support three more families struggling with hunger every week.

Be specific. Be emotive. And be consistent about both of those.

And then – for goodness’ sake – love your donors. Keep communicating with them, letting them know how you are using their money to further the mission you both care passionately about. Nones at one point did identify with a denomination or cause consistently; they certainly can do so again, and probably WANT to do so again.

But you need to love them.


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