Written By: Meredith McNabb
It’s been a full generation since sociologist Robert Putnam’s landmark book Bowling Alone (2000) described the increasing disconnection of American communities. The phenomenon of widespread disaffiliation of all kinds, secular and religious, has bloomed, and that disaffiliation shows up in people’s giving patterns to charitable organizations.
The Data Says
Headlines in the world of philanthropy thundered with news in the summer of 2021 that, in the latest data available, only half of American households made charitable gifts despite record—and increasing—dollar amounts being given overall each year, pointing to fewer givers making larger gifts. The Philanthropy Panel Study showed that 49.6% of US households made a contribution to a charitable organization in 2018—while 66.2% of US households made those contributions in 2000.
These charitable organizations exist, per the IRS definition, to provide for all kinds of good in communities, including
relief of the poor, the distressed, or the underprivileged; advancement of religion; advancement of education or science; erection or maintenance of public buildings, monuments, or works; lessening the burdens of government; lessening neighborhood tensions; eliminating prejudice and discrimination; defending human and civil rights secured by law; and combating community deterioration and juvenile delinquency.
With all of that good, difficult, seemingly essential work at stake, what does it mean that so many fewer households are making contributions to the organizations that accomplish these things? Does this phenomenon reflect how charitable organizations ask for money, or how potential donors hear those invitations? Is this a crisis of selfishness among non-givers? Is it an issue of economic insecurity, whether objective or perceived?
The Question of Non-Givers
Religious leaders have long wrestled with the question of non-givers: what does one do about the people who claim membership or affiliation with the faith community—and who may in fact participate, even quite actively—but who do not make financial gifts toward supporting its work?
In an era pre-dating the great “Age of Association” in which voluntary organizations flourished (the late 18th to the late 20th centuries), a similar phenomenon of non-giving and disaffiliation spurred John Wesley, the British founder of the Methodist Christian movement, to quip pointedly in a widely-published sermon, “One great reason why the rich, in general, have so little sympathy for the poor is because they so seldom visit them.” Wesley was pointedly observing what an insufficient excuse this “voluntary ignorance” was for people who had the financial means to help their neighbors, but who “took good care to keep out of their way” and avoided getting to know anyone who was in need.
In the present era, as religious congregations and other nonprofit organizations navigate a changing landscape in charitable giving, the knowledge of a need—the awareness of a compelling impact that could be made in the world, or even just the neighborhood, by making a gift—is one of the bedrock elements that organizations seek to communicate to potential donors. They also work on financial literacy and (sometimes) economic justice that might enable more non-givers to give. They preach and teach about their faith tradition’s beliefs about money and generosity. They get their simple, secure digital giving options sorted out to make it easy for people to give in an increasingly cashless economy. And all of that work matters for strengthening and nurturing generosity. But impact, and even more than that, fostering relationships—opportunities to know others—may be most important in inviting non-givers to give.
While there are indeed a small core of individuals who readily identify that they give nothing to no one (about 10% of the population, according to American Generosity: Who Gives and Why), there is a good deal more generosity going on among so-called “non-givers” than gets recognized in that jarring statistic that “half of all households” do not give—it’s just not flowing through official charitable associations and organizations.
In a nationally representative survey, the Everyday Donors of Color study noted the importance of the giving that takes place outside of nonprofit organizations, with nearly 73% of people of all racial and ethnic groups giving money and other assistance to people they know, 56% helping strangers outside of money—and just shy of 50% giving money to strangers. The study labeled this giving as “Mutual Aid”—a category of giving with special resonance for many religious traditions. Mutual aid emphasizes the shared relationships between those who contribute and those who receive, and it inherently implies that one might give at one point in time and receive at another. Mennonite, Jewish, and a number of Black, immigrant, and other close-knit communities have had rich histories of expressing generosity this way, both with and without institutional structures to support the sharing of resources toward all the good ends we recognize as “charitable.” Enormous sums of money are given person-to-person and through networks of relationship—perhaps even just the relationship of shared humanity in the case of gifts given directly to strangers.
There is much to consider about how generosity is invited and encouraged in those who do not presently give, but relationship is the key. In an era of disaffiliation, religious organizations have a tremendous opportunity—and existential imperative—to demonstrate how a gift through them, perhaps more than to them, will have a positive, significant impact on all those social goods that we recognize as “charitable.” Perhaps even more so, religious organizations are among the best-poised to build actual relationships—to make less seldom the visits between those who presently have resources and those who do not—to awaken generosity, relationships, and connection for the mutual good of us all.
By Randy Nyce
The needs of the pandemic have shone a spotlight on mutual aid as communities have recognized and responded to the needs of their neighbor. As Meredith McNabb observes, at the root of this response is relationship and impulse to care for our community. Her reflection spurred in me some reflection on the nature of mutual aid and my own willingness to be obedient to that biblical call.
Within my Mennonite tradition, mutual aid has been a central practice from its earliest day. For a “close knit community”, many years through distinctive dress and separateness, mutual aid was a way to carry each other’s burdens when other supports were not available. The organization I work for began as Mennonite Mutual Aid. Its organizing goal was to provide assistance to men returning from alternative service after World War II who did not have access to the GI Bill. (As a peace church, these Mennonite men were ineligible, having refused the draft and instead served in non-military roles.)
In that context, mutual aid has always been a complement to the work of charity. It isn’t a donation to one in need as much as it is siblings helping siblings. Mutual aid is at the heart of the biblical call to love God and love others. Scripture exhorts us to carry each other’s burdens, sell our possessions and property to care for those in need. Taking seriously that Acts 2 example of the early church, early Mennonite members were asked if they were prepared to give of their goods for the benefit of others in need.
At its best, mutual aid is practiced person to person within the community, demonstrating the love of Christ which compels us to care for those in need and gives us the assurance that we will be cared for in our time of need. That kind of mutual care is not measured in tax deductions. The value of a meal delivered, a bag of groceries left on a doorstep, or the hours of babysitting is never receipted or itemized.
I wonder too what we are willing to do to care for each other. For so many of us, we have never really been asked to give like the example of Acts 2 and 4. During the pandemic, I wrestled with my own obedience to live out that example. Was I willing to sell a piece of land or a house so that it could be shared with those in need?
Like many who spend time in stewardship ministries, I’ve been asked countless times “Should I tithe on the net or gross?” That question is too narrow. It leads us to focus on the tithe, the 10%, rather than on our whole lives, the 100%. Mutual aid is a manifestation of that whole life discipleship. The kind that is willing to cash in the 401K so that the needs of our brothers and sisters will be met.
Thanks Meredith, for that reminder and that exhortation that stirs in me God’s call “to awaken generosity, relationships, and connection for the mutual good of us all.”
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