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A New Effort to Empower Individual Giving

Take a look!

I've been helping run a publication called Humane Pursuits for five years now. We explain part of the reason for its existence this way: "The technocratic politics, big businesses, sprawling cities, and mass media of the 20th century gave birth to a Millennial generation whose members are more isolated and more confused about their roles than perhaps any young people in history. As a result, though, they tend to question a lot of bad ideas that their parents and grandparents took for granted."

Humane Pursuits seeks to help people, especially young people, explore how to live rich, meaningful ("rounded") lives in the context of modern settings and demands ("boxes") that often seem structured to make it difficult.

We have a whole section of the site, the Give channel, dedicated to helping individuals think through how to give back in ways that are sustainable, effective, and meaningful. It's not a conversation about philanthropy, or even about nonprofit work per se; it's addressed to individuals and seeks to delve into questions of how they might interface better with groups, communities, and organizations to make a difference. The vision is for this to become a tremendous resource not only for people who want to think about how to give back, but also for organizations seeking to better understand the rising donor base.

It'll deal with questions that resonate with younger potential givers; questions like:

  • Is fundraising always bad?
  • If results aren't all about numbers, what should we measure?
  • Have we left service to the professionals?
  • Is "giving back" an opportunity or a responsibility?
  • Should a big problem have a big solution?
  • What keeps you from giving?

Editor Ashley May, who runs the channel, works at Philanthropy Roundtable in D.C. and has a superb vision for what this channel can be. But she has just started building it, and can use a lot of input, advice, writers, etc. I invite you to visit the channel and send Ashley your feedback (or writing submissions!).

She's also organizing a symposium of sorts, on which you may want to weigh in:

August 4 conversation:

"Our topic is the following question: "Is there anything good about the one percent?"

Stories abound on the one percent and its evils. One article in The Atlantic claims it isn't even the 1% versus the 99%--it's the .01% versus the 99.9%. Is this a moral problem for our country? Does this unprecedented wealth move our whole society forward, or allow greed to reign? Is the social sector dependent on massive amounts of wealth to solve our most important problems?

Humane Pursuits is accepting 300-400 word responses on this question, "Is there anything good about the one percent?" Entries should be sent to Ashley May at by July 28. Longer entries may be considered as well; please submit a brief proposal."



How much does each generation give each year, and what are their giving habits?

What do the numbers tell that would help me engage everyone more effectively? The real issue: you’re sharp enough to have noticed that a 20 year-old, a 40 year-old, and a 60 year-old do not tend to respond the same way to the same kinds of communication and appeals. So you’re wondering how best to spend your time in order to get the best value for your organization. Who really gives a lot of money? Where do they tend to give it? And so on.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently released an EXCELLENT infographic about this—I encourage you to click and take a look. Chances are you know the oldest two generations (CoP calls them the “elder generation” and Baby Boomers) pretty well. But what about the 20 and 40 year-olds, who will be your donor base very, very soon? Here are some things that jumped out at me.

  • A whopping 60% of Millennials give (higher than Gen X and only 12% behind Boomers). That is a huge number for a generation that supposedly is half unemployed and has no money.
  • Yes, you say, but they probably give smaller amounts. True, but not nearly as small as you’d think. Millennials donate an average of $481 each every year, which is 60% of what Gen Xers (the 40 year-olds) donate. That adds up to $15.8 billion in giving each year by young adults, because there are 91.2 million Millennials (their generation is 50% bigger than Gen X). Takeaway: don’t discount the kids.
  • People in the youngest two adult generations (Gen X and Millennial) support an average of 3.9 and 3.3 charities per person, respectively. By comparison, Boomers support 4.5 and the Elder Generation supports 6.2. Takeaway: younger people support fewer causes financially. Based on my own more qualitative research, I urge you not to discount this—the number might increase some as they get older, but I doubt it will grow much. The younger generations tend to feel pretty strongly about being a part of the organizations they support; they don’t tend to want to write a check once a year and be forgotten for the rest of it.
  • Note the “favorite causes” and “favorite ways to give” sections at the bottom of the generations chart. Millennials are the first generation to not identify church as their top charity to support (children’s charities replace it, for now). They also seem a little more open to checkout counter donations.



Why should I waste time trying to get broke 28 year-olds to donate?

A different answer to the old-vs-young prospecting question.

Why should I waste time trying to get broke 28 year-olds to donate?

The real issue: Baby Boomers have all the money. They probably provide the vast majority of your current funding. If you had time, you might give some thought to how to get Generation X to start donating, since they’ll be your funding base in a decade or two. But you don’t have time, and you REALLY don’t have time to talk to their kids, who won’t be in the picture till long after you retire.

The answer: that attitude is probably costing you thousands if not millions of dollars every year.

Did you know a recent study found that 90% of children donate to charity?

Yup. My own especially tenacious sister-in-law raised hundreds of dollars to donate to Compassion when she was four years old. (She walked around to people at church with a basket and trust me, you felt like a monster if you didn’t give her your spare change.) The amount was abnormal—usually it’s just a few dollars—but nine out of ten of her friends also donated to charity.

By the time those kids are 50, they will have gone through a lot of life…and most of them will have stopped donating before they were old enough to drive. By the time they’re 25, they will have learned the hard way that they can’t make a difference when they’re young, and it will take millions of dollars expended by thousands of nonprofits—30, 40 years later—to convince a few of them to “be like little children” again.

What if you were the nonprofit that let that kid be a part of your work when she was four? That made her feel valued and important? That let her see the effects of what she was doing? That showed her she can make a difference right now, not as an individual, but as part of a movement? How much money do you think she would donate over the next 50 years while all the other nonprofits ignored her, assumed she wouldn’t give? How much cheaper do you think it would be to keep her giving—even if it was only a few dollars a year at first—and help her build the habit than it will be to get her to start when she has built up other habits instead?

This is a core element of social fundraising—understanding that habits are a lot easier to build than to break, especially when you start young and create small victories early. It’s like exercise. Which is easier (and more effective) when you’re 50: staying healthy when you’ve been working out for 50 years, or trying to start an exercise program now that you weigh 250 pounds and are in constant danger of a heart attack?

But, you say, that’s nice, but I need my organization to survive now. And there’s only so much of my staff to go around. We have to focus on the people whose dollars make a difference now, or we won’t be here in 40 years.

This is where another element of social fundraising is crucial to remember: that kid, that twenty-something, that mom with three kids, does not exist in a vacuum. She’s not alone. Sure, her $20 dollars each month might not be worth a ton of your effort if that were all there were, and your donor base were 200 people. But she has friends. And there are resources at your disposal that can not only make giving to you a rewarding part of her life, they can also spread to her friends.

$20 a month might not be worth a lot to you. But would $120 million be worth a lot to you? That’s $20 a month each from 10,000 people for 50 years--$2.4 million a year.



Is social media any use with churches and ministries?

Thoughts on technology and God.

This article originally appeared on Virtue Online as a product of a larger project on church polity for the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA). Featured photo is by the incredible Trey Ratliff of Stick In Customs.

If you’re not a pastor and you’re under 30, it’s probable that church isn’t at the center of your social network. You might have Christian friends, but you likely didn’t meet them at church. Of course, statistically, there’s a better than three-in-four chance that they aren’t involved in a church at all.

As I pointed out in a prior article on religion and young people, Ross Douthat’s 2012 book “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” documented how the decline of the mainline churches in America coincided with their conformity to political trends. But it’s equally true that the decline of the American church’s influence on Millennials has coincided with its conformity to inhumane social trends. I don’t mean abortion or marriage revisionism. I mean the way we order our lives as individuals and communities; or put in more fashionable terms, how God fits into our social networks.

Based on the trends I see in younger generations (trends which are the product of decades of social change, not Facebook), the Church will have to revisit this issue of church polity if it is to regain an active presence in the lives of Americans.

Christianity and community

For Christians West and East for centuries, God wasn’t just a personal savior or shrink. From the earliest days of Christianity, church leaders were concerned with how to build their whole lives as communities around God, starting with the famous “communism” seen in the Book of Acts. As the church grew, the thinking did too—and a thousand years later, God could still be found at the center of European social networks, which were built around the local parish.

If you were building a town, the first building to go up would be the church, and everything else would be built around it. Older cities have regularly spaced churches at the heart of each neighborhood. That meant that church and the community were one; institution and organism were united. You lived around the church. Christian feast days dominated the calendar; church and its members were your social center. In England, local barons even outsourced taxation related to public goods to the church (that tax was called a “tithe;” maybe you’ve heard of it). Church was a crucial spiritual, social, political, and economic force in your life. Worship itself, as Alexander Schmemann puts it, far from being a “prayer break” or a “period of spiritual refreshment” separate from the secular or profane world, was designed to be a liturgical act performed on behalf of the whole community as part of its seven-days-a-week redeeming mission.[i]

Theologically, at the core of this was a paradox of the Christian faith: the dynamic of individual and group. The Church has routinely dealt with efforts to resolve Christian paradoxes, and (as Douthat again points out) has tended to err on the side of mystery; of letting God be God. Was Jesus fully God or fully man? Yes. Is God a god of justice or of mercy? Yes. The paradox of Christian community starts with just such a paradoxical question about God (is God three or one? yes), and ends in a question about the nature of the existence of humans created in God’s image: does God care about the salvation of your individual soul, or is the Christian life something inextricably linked with the Church? Yes.[ii]

Interestingly, modern social science has vindicated this paradox in the form of social network theory, a relatively new field that demonstrates the inadequacy of the Enlightenment paradigm of individual-versus-group. Social network analysis has instead revealed the complex interplay of individuals as members of groups, demonstrating that the happiest people are the ones with strong ties to others (and to their friends’ friends) through a diverse array of groups and shared relationships; in fact, we barely have an identity as individuals apart from those influences. And in a finding that would have been unsurprising to the early Church, we’ve found that “religious sensibilities are partially hardwired in our brains, and they are related to our desire for social connection to others, not only a spiritual connection to God” (emphasis mine).[iii]

The individual and the 20th century

Yet for theological reasons that are not the focus of this piece, the American church (under the influence of certain strains of Protestantism) has been less comfortable with this tension, and has mostly focused on the salvation of the individual soul. Many churches talk about the importance of community, but it’s rarely clear why theologically, and the core communitarian worship element (the Eucharist) is de-emphasized or even skipped. At the same time, since the mid-19th century, the United States has grown from an agricultural and merchant society to an industrial and eventually post-industrial one. We have grown from a society of small towns and parishes to a society of cities and suburbs and geographical mobility. Close-knit families, once economic engines (think of the family farm), have ceased to be common or economically important (or so it appears at first glance). And local churches have become things we look for after we’ve found a job someplace, not things around which we build a lifetime.

The inevitable result of these theological and social changes is the impossibility of the parish model I’ve just described. Columbia sociologist Robert Nisbet pointed out as early as 1952 that while the American church community (individualistic as it was) could survive for a while on the inherited capital of strong social ties from bygone eras, sooner or later the conservatives’ arguments about the central importance of family and church to human life would ring hollow. When institutions have no clear, concrete benefits to us economically and politically; when we can’t see their significance to the larger community or the world around us; their psychological benefit is reduced and people start to slip away from them or seek ways to redefine them.[iv]

T.S. Eliot saw this coming as well. Writing in 1938, he said:

“In its religious organization, the church has remained fixed at the stage of development suitable to a simple agricultural society, and the modern materialistic complication has produced a world for which Christian social forms are imperfectly adapted. There are two oversimplifications of this problem which are suspect. One is to insist that the only salvation for society is to return to a simpler mode of life [i.e. to double down on the parish model]. This policy appears utopian. The other is to accept the modern world as it is and simply try to adapt Christian social ideals to it. The latter resolves itself into a mere doctrine of expediency, and it is a surrender of the faith that Christianity itself can play any part in shaping social forms.”[v]

While parish-based churches failed to adapt strategically to the changing times, some American churches didn’t take this lying down. Their leaders thought they had to reinvent church for the new era. They had to figure out how to help people squeeze God into one of the parts of their busy “secular” lives. In the process, however, they reinvented not only church but Christianity. The suburban church, the megachurch, was church adapted to the modern materialist lifestyle; ultimately, it provided a one-way, individualized strip mall commodity to which people could drive once a week to consume a product. If Protestantism had individualized Christian theology, the megachurch individualized (i.e. surrendered) Christian community. It gave so much ground to the prevailing culture that it conceded as lost (as Eliot predicted) the very notion that God could be at the center of our social networks. Although sometimes preaching that worship was something people were supposed to do every day with their whole lives, it failed to offer any serious model for what that should look like, and left it up to individuals to be Christian islands in a sea of secularism six days a week (and in a sea of thousands of fellow passive audience members on the seventh).

A superfluous church

Despite (and perhaps partly because of) these radical changes to church polity, Eliot and Nisbet’s predictions have to a large extent played out. Even among the most devout Christians today, church is rarely the spiritual (let alone social) centerpiece it once was, except as a therapeutic or educational gas station.

This is particularly true among young churchgoers, only 25% of whom say they subscribe to their church’s teachings (they prefer to pick and choose their favorite parts), and who are more likely to pick a church where their friends go than to build their social network from church as a starting point. Small groups are an inadequate counter to megachurch culture; they feel artificial to young people (especially the ones who already have a critical mass of Christian friends they’ve bumped into through other activities).

As busy as some megachurches appear, 75% of self-described Christians apparently lose their faith in college, hardly any can articulate what Christianity is, 82% of people under 30 don’t go to church regularly, 18% have left the religion in which they were raised, and only 4% of onetime nonbelievers say they have converted. [vi] And on the parish end of things, the typical mainline pastor has watched her church slowly die, as its spiritual and political offerings vary little from secular alternatives and its institutional and social structure remains suited for an age that is long gone. (I recently toured a beautiful Pennsylvania mainline church that is now for sale, and the way its pastor spoke of it, you’d think we were on an archaeological dig site of a long-dead civilization. It was eerie.)

Where to from here?

In light of all this, the critical question for a church leader interested in a revival of the faith is how to accomplish something like the vitality of the old parish church. It’s about more than converting people faster; the product itself is missing something it’s supposed to have.

Certain principles can be drawn from historical experience. The Church has, after all, thrived in secular cultures before, and the sooner pastors realize that that the age of Constantine in America is over, the better. Saint Paul’s awareness of the culture around him was obvious when he spoke to the Athenians, explaining Christianity in terms they could understand rather than trying to force them into a paradigm to which they couldn’t relate.  And yet the experience of the American church in the past century has demonstrated the fatal flaws of trying too hard to accommodate either political or social trends (in both theology and worship style), offering something that is so like the culture around it that eventually nobody sees the point of it.

But something new is in order. New approaches to the relationship between institution and organism are in order. The question is how to rebuild strong Christian social networks with God at their center—something the parish model did for post-Roman Europe, and something today’s church must do for a new time. Like Cleisthenes’ reforms of ancient Athenian democracy, the solution must consider human nature (e.g. social network theory), experience (e.g. tradition), and long-term social and economic contexts, and skillfully build a social network that taps into them. “Relevance” isn’t about making your youth pastor get a tattoo; it’s about building something that has clear significance beyond itself or its members as individuals.

What might this look like? It may not be the clear, exclusive, all-in commitment of yesteryear’s community. But it may not be church-by-social-media either. If the Church’s institutional experience is any indication, it’s possible that the right conclusions (though jarring to some American Christians) might be things that would not have seemed so radical to Hooker or Augustine.

[i] Alexander Schmemann, “For the Life of the World” (Crestfield, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1963)

[ii] Ross Douthat, “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” (New York: Free Press, 2012)

[iii] Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler, “Connected: How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do” (New York: Back Bay Books, 2009)

[iv] Robert Nisbet, “The Quest For Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom” (San Francisco: ICS Press, 1952)

[v] T.S. Eliot, “Christianity and Culture” (New York: Harcourt, 1948)

[vi] Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “Religion and the Millennials,” at