Faith and Giving in the Time of COVID-19
In late April we launched a survey, “Faith and Giving in the Time of Covid-19”. Our questions for religious leaders address the impact of the pandemic and emerging economic crisis. Since that time, broad-based demonstrations against police violence and racial injustice have emerged and continue to gain momentum. Lake Institute on Faith & Giving stands with those fighting for racial equity, and we value the capacity of faith-centered organizations to be centers for transformation in their communities.
One adage stemming from the pandemic crisis notes, “We are not all in the same boat, but we are all in the same storm.” In the spring of 2020, Lake Institute on Faith & Giving surveyed its constituents to learn more about the challenges and hopes of a wide swath of religious congregations and organizations. 595 respondents—about half speaking from a congregational perspective, 10% from a denominational/network role, and the remaining respondents evenly divided between nonprofit organizational leaders and development professionals—generously completed the survey, offering a rich picture of their own experiences and hopes in very different parts of the storm.
“We have some money in savings, but not enough.” “Dealing with never-ending change is exhausting.” “Our entire workplan has been thrown upside down.”
Congregations and religious nonprofit organizations are weathering the storm in very different ways—and there are a number of immediate and mid-range challenges facing these institutions and their leaders. From the difficulty of engaging members and donors in physically distanced ways—to sensitivity to grief, health and family concerns, and job losses—to cancelled plans for critically important events, the respondents offered differing pictures of immediate challenges. Some organizations feared they were on the brink of immediate closure (with a few noting serious pre-existing problems), others were pondering whether and how to shift plans and offer new opportunities online.
In looking ahead six months, many of those immediate concerns resolved to a few key areas of challenge, with respondents recognizing the difficulty of making sustained changes in how they had been living out their organizations’ mission and vision. Nearly half of the respondents anticipated that issues of stewardship—fundraising and financial management—would be their most significant challenge, with concerns touching on budget-setting, decreases in giving, and how to ask for gifts in such a time. About 20% of responses focused on questions of organizational vision, mission, and purpose, while another 20% questioned whether or how they would be able to return to in-person worship, gatherings, and events or continue to engage their constituents (including new people who had joined online worship or organizational events) after such a sustained time of online/distanced gatherings. Just over 10% observed that layoffs or even closure of the organization would be important questions for them to address in this mid-range time horizon.
“We will have to experiment often, pray fervently, invite others in, and not be afraid to fail.” “We will weather this crisis and see new opportunities.” “We will possibly have to let go of some things that we were doing before.”
Some observers have suggested that the pandemic crisis may be an “accelerating” force among religious institutions—hastening both welcomed and unwelcomed changes of all types. Survey respondents share some of that sense: some express enthusiasm about the crisis ultimately yielding clarity, innovation, and renewal, while others soberly hope for relevance, pruning, and survival. Many organizations had made changes even in the first few weeks of operating under new conditions—for instance, taking the leap into digital giving where they had not done so previously—and many see the need to do more adaptive work in areas like re-imagining the use of current resources and innovating in money and ministry in the coming months.
In the midst of so much change, however, the survey reveals over and over again that the bedrock principles of development work in religious institutions remain the same. The leaders who responded to the survey regularly describe their focus on relationships and their organizations’ clarity of purpose as the keys to navigating the crisis. As one respondent puts it, “…When supporters know we have a need and when we articulate [it] well, the support comes. In some ways, this is the easiest time to articulate the need and the meaning in giving.” While very little about this time is easy for any organization or leader to navigate, it remains critical for leaders to engage the deep challenges with deep questions and deep commitment to their particular contexts.
As Lake Institute continues to delve into the survey responses and follows up with additional research and conversations, we express our gratitude to all those who responded so thoughtfully, demonstrating their remarkable insight into their institutions and their strong hopes for how they hope to respond to present challenges.
by David P. King, Ph.D.
One thing we have learned from the respondents to our recent survey is how much crises can leave leaders living with a sense of paralysis. Borrowing from Ron Heifetz’s Practice of Adaptive Leadership, we often share with religious leaders, “what people resist is not change, per se, but loss.”
A month ago, congregations were processing the loss of traditional giving patterns. Universities and theological schools were processing the loss of enrollment and in-person classes. Faith-based nonprofits were processing the loss of opportunities to reach out to donors as well as their summer programs and future sustainability. As the global Covid-19 pandemic and related economic uncertainty continues, these remain particular and very real challenges.
At the same time, greater change is in the air as powerful demonstrations against police violence and racial injustice continue to gain momentum. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others have highlighted long-standing patterns of racial inequality and revealed the injustices wrought by systemic racism.
In grappling with the multiple dimensions of this moment, the majority of leaders see it as a crucible that they do not want to emerge from unchanged. Our respondents are clear, we will not return to business as usual. There will be a new normal whether that be reset, growth, or innovation. If this is true when leaders are reimagining the use of current resources, serving alongside local partners, and fostering greater generosity, can it also be true for the ways in which we address racial injustice in our communities?
Any expectation for a new normal, however, must be undertaken with humility. If religious institutions have often served as part of the solution in these crises, they have also served as part of the problem. The same is true for philanthropy. In Lake Institute’s DNA is a calling to always remain a learning organization. Our perspectives, practices, and privilege have shaped our experiences, and we have much to learn. We seek to listen as much as we lead. While Lake Institute obviously does not have all the answers to the storms we are currently facing, we pledge to stay the course and sit with the questions, the loss, and the necessary change that we may experience in the days ahead.
While listening and learning may take center stage, in the midst of these crises, we also hope that we do not fall victim to inaction as the need for change is so great. On this front, we are guided by the most fundamental questions rooted in our focus on the dynamic relationship between faith and philanthropy: What is a good gift? How do we be both a generous giver and recipient? What is enough and what is the proper sharing of resources with our neighbors?
Finally, while a focus on faith and giving cannot overlook the disparity of resources in our communities, it is also clear that philanthropy cannot only be defined by finances. As we have shared publicly over the past few weeks, if philanthropy includes giving of time, talent, and treasure, it also includes testimony: using our voice, advocating for change, and also listening to the stories of others for new perspectives. There is much work still to do, and Lake Institute will continue to strive in the ways that we can to work for peace, justice, and equality.
Insights, a bi-weekly e-newsletter, is a resource for the religious community and fundraisers of faith-based organizations that provides:
- Reflections on important developments in the field of faith and giving
- Recommended books, studies and articles
- Upcoming Lake Institute events