For much of the past century, philanthropy remained an unquestioned good. But with growing public perception connecting philanthropy to the power and prestige of an increasingly smaller number of megadonors, philanthropy can no longer be dismissed without critical reflection. And that is all for the good.
In the broad definition of Robert Payton, founder of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy where I currently teach, philanthropy is “private action for the public good.” Yes, that is the largesse of the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Gates, but it is also the everyday giving of average Americans putting a twenty in the offering plate, dropping spare change in the Salvation Army kettle, or the regular monthly donation that sponsors the child whose picture hangs on their refrigerator. The United States has most often held up its philanthropic spirit as a distinctive contribution since the days of Alexis de Tocqueville. It does hold true that America has a more vibrant third sector (but also a lower tax rate and smaller government) than other industrialized countries.
Yet, since de Tocqueville, the majority of the focus on the American philanthropic spirit has focused on issues at home. American philanthropy has also provided significant interventions and impact abroad. Today, even amidst increased nationalism in many parts of the world, international giving actually grew by the largest percentage of any charitable subsector last year (9.6 percent), mostly due to the pressing need of responding to civil wars, disasters, and rising numbers of refugees.
At the same time, religion has also been a powerful force for both the givers and receivers of philanthropy. As individuals’ religious identities and the roles of faith-based institutions evolve, these particular religious identities provide various lenses through which many Americans see and interact with the world. The dynamic intersections of both faith and philanthropy may prove to be some of the most persuasive forces shaping not only local and national issues but also Americans’ global imaginaries and actual engagement in the world outside our own borders.
In the midst of the changing dynamics in faith and philanthropy lies perhaps one of the largest and most often overlooked sectors: religious international humanitarianism. What does the evolution of faith-based relief and international development mean for our focus on the changes within both religion and philanthropy?
The philanthropic landscape in the United States overall is clearly changing. For well over a decade, there has been a significant decline in the percentage of US households who make any charitable contributions (from 68.5 percent in 2002 to 55.5 percent in 2014). Fewer Americans giving at all, particularly in moderate income households, increases the philanthropic power of those that do give, which continues to skew toward those with the greatest wealth.
Such a trend has unleashed renewed critiques of philanthropy as undemocratic, exercising the philanthropic whims of the few over the many. Recent books critiquing philanthropy are plentiful and popular with titles such as: Winners Take All, Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better, and Decolonizing Wealth. At the heart of many of these debates is the question of the nature of philanthropy. Progressives are pushing hard for a focus on civic engagement, equity, and inclusion, suggesting philanthropy should be determined by the public for the public. On the other hand, conservatives continue to push toward protecting private action: donor intent and donor values as paramount within the American philanthropic ethos. Still others are more interested in blurring the preconceived sectors, emphasizing innovation such as impact investing, b-corps, and even LLCs rather than traditional grant-making foundations.
Alongside these general critiques of philanthropy are growing uncertainties of the future of religious communities and the funding of their institutions. For as long as scholars have tracked giving trends, giving to religion has been the largest philanthropic sub-sector (29 percent of all giving in 2018), even when defined narrowly as giving almost exclusively to congregations. That total was well over 50 percent in the 1980s! Dominated not by megagifts but by the regular donations of average Americans, declines in religious affiliation and attendance patterns are perhaps beginning to take their toll on congregations. At the same time, an increasing number of nonprofits are competing for individual donors’ charitable dollars. Yet, despite the seemingly mounting challenges facing giving to religion, we actually know very little about the sources of contributions as well as expenditures of congregations because they are not required to file tax-exempt 990 returns like most other nonprofits. The soon to be released National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices, the most comprehensive study of congregational finances in a generation, will fill this gap and clarify what types of congregations are growing and which are declining. But overall trends in religion and philanthropy make a clear case that these questions go far beyond congregations. They also affect the hundreds of thousands of faith-based social service agencies and international humanitarian agencies.
The most public debates over religious nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in recent years have focused on federal funding for domestic faith-based initiatives initiated under President Bill Clinton, expanded under President George W. Bush, and that continue today. While “charitable choice” remains somewhat divisive around NGOs’ access to government funding, hiring rights, and conscience clauses on what services organizations are willing to provide, there has been much more bluster than actual funding heading to agencies who had not previously received government grants.
These same debates always carried less fervor in funding for large-scale international development. It could be that the US government spends just about one percent of its budget on foreign aid, or that the issue has often remained out of sight and out of mind for most Americans. Yet, most religious aid agencies that operate overseas have benefited from government funding for over half a century as a part of a well-developed international aid sector.
My recent book, God’s Internationalists, introduces new actors and questions into the study of America’s global humanitarian engagement. In the midst of America’s world wars, a coalition of mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish agencies received the bulk of federal and individual support. After World War II, a new generation of upstart agencies arose to follow the hotspots of the Cold War: Korea, Vietnam, and later Latin America and Africa.
World Vision would become the largest of these new agencies, and soon they would overtake the ecumenical agencies of the mid-twentieth century. Today World Vision maintains forty thousand employees, offices in nearly one hundred countries, and an annual budget of over $2 billion. The evangelical agency grew through a broad base of support perfecting child sponsorship and small donations for immediate needs over major gifts or government grants. In so doing, founder Bob Pierce shaped the global imagination of millions of everyday Americans who watched his firsthand footage of suffering overseas and responded to his direct appeal letters even if World Vision was denied a seat at the head table of established international relief and development agencies. It was precisely the appeal to everyday donors that allowed them to grow while established agencies, such as CARE, Catholic Relief Services, Church World Service, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, received well over half of their annual budgets from federal aid. To remain outside government partnership was to languish on the sidelines of the aid industry, yet an overreliance on federal aid often led to underdeveloped fundraising and little attention to communicating to broader audiences.
Today, World Vision is larger than any of these originally established agencies. It sits as the 24th largest nonprofit in total private support. And other evangelical upstarts have eclipsed them within the echelon of America’s favorite charities. Compassion International, which foregoes federal funding and works strictly through local churches is ninth. Samaritan’s Purse, led by Franklin Graham and accompanied by his routine controversial political statements, is 35th.
However, none of these agencies still survive simply through small, monthly donations. Operation Christmas Child, the popular if not questionable development practice of stuffing a shoebox with gifts to a child in need overseas, might raise the profile of Samaritan’s Purse during the height of the charitable giving season, but it does not pay the bills. Samaritan’s Purse seeks major gifts and government aid now like many other agencies.
Yet, all remain nimble in adapting to changing philanthropic and fundraising practices. If World Vision was once on the outside, by the 1980s it had begun to embrace professionalized development practice, seek government grants, and solicit in-kind donations and corporate foundations such as pharmaceuticals, baby formula, and goods for disaster relief. Today, World Vision demonstrates a diversified portfolio of committed child sponsors, marathoners raising money for clean water, government grants, corporate foundations, and major multi-million dollar donors.
As federal and international aid often set humanitarian priorities while intertwined with faith and politics for much of the twentieth century, in more recent decades, major philanthropy has often taken the lead. Since the early 2000s, with celebrities like U2 front man Bono and the funds of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, initiatives like the ONE Campaign and the UN’s Millennium Development (now Sustainable Development) Goals to end extreme poverty and fight the global AIDS epidemic have rallied politicians, pop stars, and everyday givers to the cause.
At some points, politicians have followed philanthropy to bolster if not to complicate the work. Often championed as one of the greatest successes of George W. Bush’s presidency, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) poured billions into the African AIDS crisis. Of course, faith and politics also played a central role. Of the initial $15 billion President Bush pledged, $1 billion was earmarked for HIV prevention through abstinence-only until marriage education. Critics claimed Bush was buying off conservatives by opening funding to faith-based organizations here and overseas while pushing an agenda of abstinence only education over contraceptives and other forms of prevention and care. Even so, Michael Gerson, fierce critic of current president Donald Trump but an architect of PEPFAR under George W. Bush, lauded the types of strange bedfellows that partnered together to battle the HIV/AIDS crisis.
We no longer seem willing to accept philanthropy as an unquestioned good (and why should we?). The same critical reflection has been an essential part of engaging religion, politics, and the aid industry for far longer. Yet, at the same time, for far too long we have examined each of these sectors independently. In reality, most often they all intersect. And if I have already made the case that faith and philanthropy are undergoing significant change, then the impact on international aid should also be noticeable. People of faith are not ceasing to give to congregations and local faith-based service agencies, but the religious and spiritual values that motivate their giving are expanding at home and overseas. That is true for everyday givers and major philanthropists.
It is worth taking stock, then, of how religion functions for donors, nonprofits, and humanitarian networks. It is rarely static. Most often these religious identities have evolved over time to create divisions, alliances, and compromises between organizations, governments, and funders. These dynamic intersections and evolving identities remain most vital to watch as these sectors come together, lobby for particular approaches to international aid, and debate America’s role overseas. These intersections stand to shape the global outlook and involvement of most Americans in the days ahead. And that is something that none of us can overlook.