How could a market downturn affect Catholic giving? A look at the data

Washington D.C., Mar 20, 2020 / 03:01 am (CNA).- The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is, by most accounts, leading the United States toward a financial crisis.

According to Bloomberg, the global pandemic has caused the biggest decline in consumer confidence in the US economy since October 2008. The S&P 500 economic index sits at its lowest level since 2017, unemployment is rising, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average is tumbling.

How might the market downturn affect how much US Catholics give to their parish and other Catholic causes?

While the economic outlook is changing day-by-day, two experts in fundraising for Catholic causes pointed to historical data that suggests that pastors and bishops ought not be reticent to continue fundraising efforts.

Steve Manno, managing director for CCS Fundraising, a firm that has fundraised for numerous U.S. Catholic dioceses, told CNA that while fundraising is difficult, pastors should not give up amid a market downturn.

Manno said that giving to Catholic causes could face some real obstacles in years to come.

Data from the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy suggests philanthropy tends to track with the stock market, with some of the more precipitous drops coming in the last economic downturn of 2008-2009, he told CNA.

The Lilly School data also suggests that while in terms of dollars, overall giving by Americans to charity has risen over the decades, the amount given per household actually is decreasing. Major gifts from high-net worth donors skews the data, Manno said.

In addition, the data show that in 2000, 66% of American households gave to charitable causes overall. By 2016, it was 53%.

Another study by Lilly Family School found that overall, 46% of American households gave to religious congregations in 2000, compared with 32% in 2016. The year 2019, Manno said, was unprecedented for faith-based giving in general.

“It dropped below 30% of all US philanthropy for the first time,” he said.

But Manno also pointed to data from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy that looks at the effects of natural disasters on charitable giving, which he said could provide relevant insights given the crisis at hand.

The data suggests that when an event such as a major natural disaster takes place, most households who donate to disaster relief will not donate less to other causes— in fact, a small percentage (12%) may increase their giving to other causes in addition to donating to disaster relief.

That data could suggest that the coronavirus pandemic itself might not lead to additional decreases in giving.

And there are bright spots on the fundraising landscape. Among them is online giving.

Overall, online giving to Catholic causes is up 2.6% from previous years, Brad Patterson, corporate vice president of CCS, told CNA.

He said development offices are better in general at driving toward online giving than they have been in the past.

In the face of the suspension of public Mass— which all Latin rite dioceses in the United States have now done amid the coronavirus pandemic— many parishes do not yet have an online giving portal set up are likely to feel the pinch of several weeks of no in-person donations. The current crisis will likely spur pastors to make online giving a priority, Patterson said.

Manno said in his experience, a time of financial uncertainty is the time for pastors and bishops to communicate with their flocks as much as possible. That communication is key, he said.

He said that if necessary, asking via videoconferencing for donations is a legitimate option.

"It may feel like now is a moment to pause, or delay activity, but it's really important to take note that in previous economic downturns, those who continued to push forward in their [fundraising] efforts ultimately succeeded. And those who took a step back lost ground," Manno told CNA.

He noted that some Catholics are giving less to the Church for reasons unrelated to the stock market, but such drops are highly regionalized. The Archdiocese of Washington, for example, took in millions of dollars less in its annual appeal this year, likely because of fallout from the sexual abuse crisis.

Still: “Catholics remain generous,” Manno said.

"When asked, Catholics give. When invited, they give. When shown what the specific need is, here's what this money can do, then they tend to respond very favorably."

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