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The Decline of the Tithe & Individual Giving: A Call to Action for Nonprofit Organizations

Understanding & addressing challenges facing faith-based charities

From Michael J. Tomlinson (“MT”), CEO and President, BDI

The last thing I ever want is to become known as a prophet of doom and gloom among my colleagues. Yet, over the last few years I’ve had to try harder than ever to find the “bright spots” in philanthropy to encourage nonprofit leaders who champion their teams doing important cause work. 

If you’ve been in this industry for any amount of time, you understand that circumstances often get worse before they get better. I’m cautiously optimistic that’s the trajectory we’re on in charitable giving right now as a whole. And it’s a trend we’re especially seeing when it comes to giving motivated by religious affiliation. (It’s hard right now, but good things ahead!)

For many of the nonprofit client partners BDI serves, Christian faith is the foundation of the work they do – and that has appeal to a broad base of Christian donors. However, as giving by individuals has declined in recent years, it begs the question: Are core values like faith a strong enough motivator to give? And if they aren’t, how can we adjust our fundraising strategies to reignite support?

According to Giving USA, over recent years, giving to religion has declined faster than to any other sector (when adjusted for inflation). To me, it’s no coincidence that a similar decline has been seen in the tithe:

  • From the 1950s to 1970s, Americans gave roughly 11% of their income to the church.
  • By 2000, that number had declined to around 7%.
  • In 2023, Christians tithed only 3% on average!

The decline of tithe culture in the US is not merely a trend but a seismic shift with profound implications for faith-based charities. What is at the root of this concerning drop? While sustained economic decline is certainly a factor, more so, I believe this is the result of an increasing secularization of our culture.

For many Americans, tithing is both a budget habit and a spiritual practice, deeply intertwined with the social experience of church and accountability. It also has a rich history in ancient Israel, and biblical accounts have helped carry on this tradition of giving 10% of one’s income (what God has blessed you with) back to the church.

Of course, if fewer Christians are attending church – or even identifying with this religious tradition – it makes sense that fewer would be tithing. Pew Research Center has tracked a pattern of decline in Christian affiliation among young Americans since the 1940s, with this trend accelerating in the 1990s:

“With each generation, progressively fewer adults retain the Christian identity they were raised with, which in turn means fewer parents are raising their children in Christian households.” – From the article, “Modeling the Future of Religion in America,” Pew Research Center

“With each generation, progressively fewer adults retain the Christian identity they were raised with, which in turn means fewer parents are raising their children in Christian households.” – From the article, “Modeling the Future of Religion in America,” Pew Research Center

I’ve highlighted before the “rise of the religious nones” as a key reason for waning religious motivation to give. With fewer American families identifying as Christian and attending church regularly, we are seeing the birth of younger generations with no familial tradition of Christian faith, or the practices that come with it like tithing. 

Essentially, young adults today aren’t shifting to a different religious affiliation than Christianity, rather they are accepting disaffiliation as their state of being. Even for those young adults who were raised in a Christian home, the religious identity has become less “sticky.” So too the practice of the tithe.

Consider how strong the motivation is to give when you’re sitting in a church pew, the offertory music begins to play, and the plate is passed. You see a man or woman a few seats down open up their wallet. Perhaps you feel encouraged to drop a few bills in too (or scan the QR code to tithe online). As more and more churches closed their doors through the many months of the pandemic, moving to streaming online, it certainly became more difficult for ministries to sustain their pre-pandemic revenue from tithes.

Even as most churches have returned to in-person services (or a hybrid model of streaming online and in-person), there still seem to be fewer bodies in the pews and fewer dollars in the plate.

While we can anticipate this trend of the declining tithe to affect faith-based charities similarly, I believe there are 4 encouraging ways that nonprofit organizations can adapt to not only survive this trying season, but also thrive.

1) Make a specific case for support. Now is not the time for fear or retreat. It is the time to double down on your why, your organization’s reason for being. You can be part of the solution to this decline in the tithe by making a stronger case for support. (I’ve shared before about how important it is to be honest with your donors about the hard realities of what will happen if your organization – and its services to help others – cease to exist.)

2) Provide wider onramps to participation. Your donors play a seminal role in the survival and growth of your organization’s programs and services. In addition to their financial gifts, recognize that their support is needed more than ever in other ways (e.g., prayer, advocacy). Invite and encourage your community to partner with you holistically.

3) Make your message your ministry. In challenging times, telling the stories of life transformation at your organization can fill your supporters with hope and even strengthen their faith in God’s goodness. This may not be a message they’re hearing if they’re not attending church, but you can encourage them as you report back on the work God is doing in and through your organization.

4) Believe your boldness will be rewarded. Understand that development is more than a linear process of investing and waiting for returns. It’s about changing lives inside your organization (your beneficiaries)… as well as outside your organization (your donors and broader community). As you experience a season of decline, your willingness to serve in the face of these challenges is a testimony to your faith.

Despite the trials that downtrends like a declining tithe bring, I encourage you not to lose heart. Instead may we fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith, leaning into boldness, strategy, specificity and excellence in our work. Doing so will not only sustain our critical causes, but it will also provide wide avenues for their growth.

At BDI, we are committed to charting a course forward, to help nonprofit organizations navigate this perfect storm of the many crises impacting giving. Know that we are here to help you – and to help connect worthy humanitarian causes to more generous donors around the globe.

In closing, I want to leave you with a verse I pray will fill your sails with fresh winds of faith, fueling you for the exciting journey ahead:

“Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
– Hebrews 11:6

Michael J. Tomlinson CEO and President BDI
  • Michael Tomlinson, BDI CEO and President

    Michael J. Tomlinson, CEO and President

    Michael J. Tomlinson, better known as “MT,” is the CEO and President of BDI. With more than 25 years of executive leadership in business development and media, MT’s expertise involves leading organizations like Dr. James Dobson’s Family Talk and Dunham+Company in the ideation and execution of successful integrated marketing, broadcast and digital media, and fundraising strategies that fuel growth.

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