Resource Library

Religious Discernment as a Philanthropic Exercise

Resource from Insights Newsletter
Resource Library

Religious Discernment as a Philanthropic Exercise


In much of our work here at Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, we explore religion as a recipient of charitable dollars. We teach fundraising strategies for religious organizations, and we research the different ways that religious professionals understand their own work. But there’s more to our understanding of religious giving. It includes research and insight into religion as a motivation for all kinds of charitable gifts to all kinds of individuals and organizations. One of the leading experts on religious motivations of philanthropy is Dr. Paul Schervish, Professor Emeritus of Sociology and a retired Director of Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy. He also gave the Lake Lecture in 2008. Last week, we had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Schervish and talk to him about how understanding the spirituality of both giving and receiving can enhance the study of philanthropy.

Lake Institute: Often our work focuses on institutional data about giving to religion, but your work has helped expand the broader definition to include motivations to give. How, then, would you define religious giving?

Dr. Paul Schervish: Motivations are certainly an important piece of how we define religious giving because too often, we focus only on what we can measure: dollars donated, demographics reached, grants received. What we forget to reflect on instead is much more fundamental. Philanthropy, for many of us, is about our religious discernment. What truly motivates us to give – beyond just being asked or hearing about an organization – is a deeper inspiration to support a larger goal. If we don’t help donors through that discernment process, then we’re missing an opportunity to form a deeper connection. We’re training ourselves to simply tell others what to do – who to support and why – instead of supporting them through their own experience of the joy of God. When we do that, we’re doing more than raising funds; we’re helping people become their best self.

Lake: In your work at the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy, you interviewed all kinds of people about their own giving stories. What stood out from all of those conversations? What can we learn from them?

Schervish: When you ask someone about their giving story, it’s important that you broaden the conversation to include receiving. When these conversations really get going, they become about much more than a list of charitable donations to formal organizations. They’re about offering a room to a recently-unemployed relative, welcoming new neighbors, earning scholarships, and receiving visits in the hospital. The stories about informal giving rarely get captured in data about the philanthropic sector because they’re hard to measure. Even the people sharing and giving informally often don’t think of these occasions as philanthropy. We have to remember that the connections that form between givers and receivers are critical pieces to understand because true giving happens only when there is a sense of philia, the friendship-love that inspires us to share our lives with others. If we focus on philia, the philanthropy should follow.

Lake: Why are religion, spirituality, values, and morality important to the study of philanthropy?

Schervish: We cannot hope to understand all that philanthropy encompasses without recognizing the role that religious and spiritual values play in calling us to give. These pieces broaden our definition by reminding us that humans are sharing with each other, even if we can’t measure it. Philanthropy sometimes tells us that we can never do enough to satisfy all the great needs in the world. But philia tells us to look at what we’re already doing, in our relationships and work, and if it inspires us, we will continue to give freely. If people give money, but don’t have philia, they are but a clanging symbol…but when we do give from a sense of philia, we close the gap between our spiritual values and the world’s needs, and will feel happier as a result.

DATE: March 28, 2017
TOPIC: Research and Scholarship
TYPE: Article
SOURCE: Insights Newsletter
KEYWORDS: Philanthropy