Columnists > Voices

Stingy givers

But a close look at charitable data shows lots of opportunity for the upside

Issue: "Wildfire," June 24, 2006

I haven't had the opportunity to meet John and Sylvia Ronsvalle of Champaign, Ill. But even without knowing them, I love their optimism.

The Ronsvalles run an organization called Empty Tomb Inc. That's an upbeat way to introduce any business-but when your company's task is something as mundane as analyzing numbers and data, then you especially need something energizing to keep your spirit of hopefulness alive. Numbers and data can be pretty deadening.

And the numbers and data the Ronsvalles look at day after day do indeed have their downside. The Ronsvalles specialize in watching the charitable giving habits of Americans-and especially Americans who call themselves Christians. Look carefully at those figures, and you could be pretty discouraged. You might even be alarmed.

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But not the Ronsvalles. When the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently issued new figures, including some reflecting the specific giving habits of Americans, the Ronsvalles dived into the endlessly tedious tables of data and found heartening news.

At the heart of that encouragement was the fact that the lion's share of most Americans' charitable giving still goes to their churches and to ministries supported by those churches. The Ronsvalles believe that nothing should guide a Christian's giving more than his or her faith-and they are happy to note that the newest figures tend to validate that assumption.

Not that Americans, including American Christians, are all that generous. Wealthy, maybe-but not generous. Ponder this overall picture, for example:

Average cash gifts (U.S. Households)

  • Consumer Units/Households...116,282,000
  • Average Income, after taxes...$52,287
  • Cash to Churches/Religious Group...$565 (1.08%)
  • Cash to Other Charities...$158 (0.30%)
  • Cash to Educational Institutions...$46 (0.09%)
  • Gifts of Stocks, Bonds, etc....$25 (0.05%)
  • Total Cash Gifts...$794 (1.50%)

(U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for Year 2004)

Altogether, Americans gave some $92 billion for all charitable causes in 2004-and they managed to do that while giving away only 1.5 percent of their income. If those donors had tithed their income, rather than skimping by on just 1.5 percent, they would have given well over $600 billion instead of just $92 billion. The Ronsvalles point out, with excitement, how much room there is for addressing the world's problems with that kind of thinking.

The population at large, of course, may never have been taught the concept of tithing. But try applying the same line of reasoning just to that category of giving now taking place through churches and "religious organizations": That accounts for 71 percent (well over two-thirds) of all charitable giving for the year in question. "We have long maintained," say the Ronsvalles, "that religion taught and promoted philanthropy in the U.S. and therefore is the foundation for the practice of philanthropy. These numbers add strength to that view."

They do indeed-but they may do even more. If, as the numbers suggest, the most generous giving is already coming from those not just with a sentimental inclination to give but with a faith-fixed heart commitment, then there is leverage available for big increases in the future.

The Ronsvalles have still another reason for their optimism. They say the new Labor Department statistics show that even relatively young people, in the "Under 25" age bracket, direct most of their giving toward churches and religious organizations. Granted, they give even less generously than their parsimonious elders; where the population as a whole gives away 1.5 percent of their income, the "Under 25" group gives only 0.8 percent-or just a bit more than half as much as the national average. But surprisingly, of that 0.8 percent, almost all of it (0.75 percent) is directed at churches and religious organizations. And the figures show that as Americans age, they devote higher and higher proportions of their giving to their churches and to religious organizations.

Materialism remains a challenging competitor for those who would encourage Christians to give generously for the extension of God's kingdom around the world. When even evangelical Christians can't do better than a fraction of a tithe, most have clearly not yet learned the lesson of Proverbs 11:24: "One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want."

But the trends aren't all bad. Thanks to folks like John and Sylvia Ronsvalle, you can cite some facts and figures to justify some genuine optimism.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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