My family attended evangelical churches throughout my childhood. Every Sunday morning, we piled into the minivan and drove over the back roads of Central Ohio so we could spend two hours or so in an unvarying program of singing, praying, listening to a (long) sermon, chatting with friends and then heading home to take a nap.
Every Sunday morning service also included, usually sandwiched somewhere between the singing and the sermon, a collection of the offering.
The ushers would rise stiffly from their seats at the back of the chapel, move solemnly down the aisles and, after an assistant pastor’s brief prayer of thanksgiving, begin passing the plates. Hand to hand the plates went, down one pew and up the next. The soft rustling of purses and wallets was usually drowned out by the performance of “Special Music”: a pianist playing “How Great Thou Art,” or maybe someone singing the latest Amy Grant song.
I don’t know how often my parents gave to our church, nor how much, but I know they gave regularly. Regularly enough that my dad would often let me, my brother, or my sister drop a folded check into the offertory plate. At some point I began giving my own money. Cash from my allowance or, when I started working in high school, from a paycheck.
My sense is that most Americans take a dim view of this particular ritual. What with all the peer pressure from fellow churchgoers and occasional cajoling from the pulpit, the weekly offertory can seem tantamount to a shakedown. Plus, churches all across the denominational spectrum don’t exactly seem trustworthy at the moment. It’s hard to rationalize giving your money to an institution that’s failing, in fundamental ways, to live up to its own teachings.
But for my purposes here, I’m not interested in defending churches or the practice of giving to religious institutions. What I am interested in is the practice of giving. More specifically, the practice of giving away money. I won’t go so far as to say that giving away money is an unnatural act, but it’s certainly uncomfortable. For an increasing percentage of Americans, it’s largely an unfamiliar act. You could do worse than to compare it to sit ups, or learning how to play an instrument, or any other ostensibly difficult activity that gets easier and more enjoyable with time.
There has long been a positive correlation between religious affiliation and giving practices. If you regularly attend religious services, you give more. And not just to your church or synagogue or mosque. You give to other organizations, too. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised by this. Religions generally teach their adherents to be generous, to hold loosely to their earthly possessions. But—and I think this part is often overlooked, perhaps because it’s so obvious—they also provide a regular forum for the practice of giving.
The passing of the offertory plate represents, to use a fundraising term, a regular ask. It’s a weekly solicitation. Of course, that solicitation is situated in a complex theological framework, one that has very specific things to say about wealth and duty and love of neighbor. It’s a complex dynamic, but it plays out simply enough. Every week, churches provide an opportunity for congregants and parishioners to practice the discipline of charity. Study after study shows that those congregants and parishioners make good use of that opportunity, and that they continue practicing charity when they go home (presumably after a restorative nap).
As religious affiliation declines, however, fewer people are exposed to this regular practice. And it goes beyond religious organizations. As people withdraw from civic institutions, they are also severing ties from the places where they might most plausibly practice philanthropy. If you’re a Rotarian, you almost certainly donate money in addition to your time. If you’re a member of the YMCA, you’ll be at least somewhat receptive to an appeal from the Y to fund an after-school tutoring program.
Assuming that giving money is something that requires practice—practice in both hearing a request and responding charitably to it—we fundraisers are increasingly directing our appeals to people who are...well, out of practice.
We might say that nonprofits are now required to play a more formative role in cultivating charitable habits than they were in the past, back when they could merely focus on convincing people to channel their pre-existing charitable practices in a specific direction. To put it simply, we’re increasingly responsible for giving people an opportunity to practice giving. Not only that, we’re responsible for teaching our donors how to give and what it means to give, questions that have historically been framed and answered within institutions.
We’re consequently faced with both an opportunity and a challenge. An opportunity because many donors will take their cues from us. In our fundraising appeals, we can send important messages about the virtues of being generous. Rather than merely borrowing insights from advertisers and psychologists to craft appeals, we can play a role in instructing donors how to give, why to give, and what to expect when they give.
This is a challenge because, while we fundraisers might be good at explaining why donors ought to give to our charities, we might not be prepared to articulate reasons why they ought to give to any charity at all, so long as they’re giving. Indeed, as philanthropy eclipses charity as the paradigm for understanding and talking about the act of giving away money, it can be tough to reframe the conversation in terms of virtue, duty, and moral formation. But giving is good. It’s good for the giver and it’s good for society. Giving is a habit worth cultivating.
Say what you will about passing the plate. It’s good practice.