Jun 27, 2012

From the Archives

The Economy Continues to Squeeze Americans’ Charitable Giving

Many experts believe the world economy, weighed down by trouble in Europe and diminishing growth in China, is slowing down. A new public opinion survey by the Barna Group shows deepening economic concerns among American adults and increasing downward pressure on their charitable donations. Barna has been tracking indicators of economic confidence and impact on donations at regular intervals since late 2008, when the economy began to falter.

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Impact and Outlook
With each passing year, the economy continues to taint the lives of a rising share of the nation’s households. Currently, one-third of U.S. adults (34%) report they have been affected in a “major way” by the economic conditions of the last few years. This is the highest point in the four waves of tracking data, up from 22% in the early days of the economic collapse and higher than one year ago (28%).

As for their outlook, Americans believe the poor economic situation is here for the long-term. Half of adults (50%) say it will take three or more years to recover or the economy will never fully return to its pre-2009 form. This is on par with last year’s measurement, but significantly higher than it was during the first few years of the economic crisis.

Giving and Donations
The financial problems afflicting economies around the world has influenced Americans’ generosity: 41% of all U.S. adults say they have reduced giving to non-profit organizations as a result of the poor economy in the last three months. This was roughly on par with the level of charitable reduction discovered in 2011 (39%).

As for giving to churches, Americans are increasingly likely to cut back on donations to congregations and houses of worship. In the current study, one-third of Americans (34%) have dropped the amount donated to churches in the last three months. This is the highest the indicator has been since the tracking began in 2008.

Furthermore, 11% of Americans say they have completely dropped all giving to churches in recent months, also the highest it has been in the four waves of tracking conducted by Barna. In November of 2008, 4% had cut church giving entirely, but 7% had done so in April 2011.

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Baby Boomers (ages 47 to 65) are the most likely generation to struggle with the economic doldrums of recent years. Two out of five Boomers claim to be affected in a major way (40%), followed (35%) by the next-youngest generation, Busters (ages 28 to 46). While about one-quarter of Elders experienced a similar effect (27%), the same proportion of the nation’s Mosaics (ages 18 to 27) has been hit in a major way. Accordingly, Boomers were the most likely generation to drop their donations to churches and non-profits in recent months.

Other population segments who were particularly affected by the economy were households earning less than $40,000, divorced Americans, those associated with a faith other than Christianity and non-voters.

Republicans and Democrats were quite similar to one another in their responses to the economic queries. Members of both parties experience similar levels of financial pain; both demonstrate similar concerns about the future prospects of recovery; and both groups are equally likely to have reduced charitable giving to non-profit organizations. They only difference was that Democrats have cut back more so than Republicans in personal giving to churches.

In terms of religious segments, practicing Protestants were among the least likely to reduce giving to churches. However, perhaps to make up the difference, they were among the most likely to scale back their giving to other non-profit organizations. In contrast, practicing Catholics are more optimistic than Protestants about a speedy recovery; however, they are more likely to cut back donations to churches.

Putting the Findings in Context

David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, directed the study. “Americans’ considerable charitable behavior remains intact, but each year seems to bring new economic burdens to donors,” he says. “Church donors stayed more consistent in their giving than did those donating to non-profits. However, church donors are now showing increasing fatigue. We expect the next six months to be continued cautiousness for donors of all types. For faith leaders and fundraising professionals, this means planning on modest donation levels and capital campaigns and the need for clear, compelling and consistent communications to donors.

“As for the political environment,” Kinnaman continues, “it is striking to see the similarity between the perceptions of Democrats and Republicans in terms of their concerns and challenges economically. With the upcoming election, both groups are looking for the candidates to speak authentically to the personal side of the economic situation. Even among Democrats, their vote, economically speaking, is more up for grabs than one might expect with an incumbent candidate.”

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About the Research
The study on which this report is based included online surveys with 1,056 adults who were randomly chosen from the 48 continental states. The survey was conducted April 13-18, 2012. The maximum margin of sampling error for a sample of that size is estimated to be within +/- 2.9 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. There are other forms of survey error that cannot be statistically estimated. The research included 331 interviews conducted among people using cell phones. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.

Practicing Protestants and practicing Catholics are adults who describe themselves as Christians, attend a worship service at least once a month and say their religious faith is very important in their life.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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