Why 73% of Donations to go Religious Organizations


A $220 billion lesson for nonprofits.

I just finished drafting a research paper for a journal on reforms that need to be made to the social (nonprofit) sector. The gist of my argument there, which I’ve written about elsewhere, is that the social sector needs to become more social. (More on that some other time.)

While writing it, I noticed something interesting. Americans give over $300 billion to charity every year. A whopping 73% goes to nonprofits with religious ties (41% to churches and synagogues). These are hardly unknown facts, but what’s interesting about them is why.

I’ll give it away right now: there is a strong consensus these days among social scientists that more than anything else, there are two things that convince a human being that something is worth doing: peer pressure and social norms (I’m paraphrasing). And while most nonprofits treat donors like individual bank accounts and ignore these two things, churches don’t. Their giving practices (like tithing) date back way before the 20th century and match the way the human brain works.

I’ll explain.

Peer pressure. Everybody has a social network. Not Facebook, but the pattern of relationships in their lives—family, soccer friends, college buddies, work colleagues, etc. Social network theory tells us that your network tends to look like you (people gravitate towards people who are like them), and in turn, you tend to look like your network, because it influences you. You tend to want what people around you want, and value what they value—even when, technically, nobody’s pressuring you to do anything.

Social norms. These are what shape the character of your social network, or parts of it. It’s the shared ideas of what “people like us” do and don’t do, and the routines and rituals that reinforce them. When everybody around you is doing something, and you’re not, you feel left out. And when you participate in it—regularly—it shapes what you consider important so that you’re more likely to do it again.

Offering plate, anyone?

The reason churches get all that money isn’t because they do a better job of asking for it than the secular nonprofits (depending on the study, 88-96% of Americans say they give to charity and only a tiny fraction of those people goes to church regularly). Nor is it because of a “God is watching” guilt factor, although I’m sure that sometimes comes into play. It’s because church support, of all kinds, is built around the way the human brain works. Everybody does it, and everybody has a shared ritual of doing it. My Thomist friends would say that the Christian way is in sync with the natural law.

If the modern world is hesitant to learn anything from anything so backward and superstitious as religion, there’s always the $220 billion talking.

This post was originally published in my column on Aleteia.

Brian Brown
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.


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