The New Collection Basket: Will Crowdfunding Take the Place of Religious Charity?

Across the Catholic world, Pope Francis’s anti-poverty message has inspired millions. But despite this hopeful sign from the planet's largest faith organization, religion is becoming less of a sure bet when it comes to charity’s core mission: helping the poor and those in trouble.

According to recent research by GivingUSA, religious giving hasn’t kept up with total charitable giving in this country. In fact, in some years, it has actually shown a slight decline.

We recently explored how this seems to be playing out in Los Angeles, where there's been a falloff in small-scale charitable giving, in part because the population has turned more secular.

Related: GivingMay Be Up Nationally, But It's Down in This Wealthy Region. Why Is That?

Even as we at Inside Philanthropy and others talk of a new golden age of philanthropy, a key driver of mass giving appears to be in serious trouble.

Faith-based giving still remains huge, of course, with any number of bright spots, as we often note. But the handwriting seems to be on the wall in terms of long-term trends, with research documenting the declining religiosity of Americans, particularly millennials, the most secular generation ever in the United States. Whatever falloff in religious giving we're seeing now may well be only a warm-up for the real nosedive that lies down the road.

Meanwhile, though, crowdfunding is soaring, made possible by new technologies and social platforms that make it easy for nearly anyone to donate at a low level. Many of those same millennials who've never seen a church collection basket in their lives are especially comfortable with these clickable means of fundraising.

So we have to ask: Is a new age of mass philanthropy now in sight, in which crowdfunding takes the place of religious charity as a chief way that ordinary people give? And if so, what does this mean for the causes that get funded and how money flows in the nonprofit sector?

Those are big questions, and our goal here is more to raise them than to offer answers. (We'll leave such empirical heavy lifting to our smarter friends at places like the Lilly School and Urban Institute.)

With that caveat, a few thoughts. First, especially in blue states, crowdsourced charity seems to achieve some similar goals as religious charity, specifically by tapping the love-thy-neighbor instincts of nonbelievers, non-churchgoers, and the religiously disinclined. As we mentioned in our coverage of Pew’s research on today’s crowdfunding landscape, the method works well for such local emotion-driven causes as a child’s illness, a neighborhood improvement, or a family tragedy.

But what about larger issues? Historically, religious organizations were some of the prime movers behind causes like abolition, civil rights, and the war on poverty, both in the United States and abroad. Lots of faith-based money still goes to social causes, whether its funding for anti-abortion work through the huge National Christian Foundation, or the many millions in religious charity that goes to fight global poverty and suffering.  

Often, though, we hear more about crowdfunding in the context of pressing social issues and related news events. While religious organizations certainly gave to support the victims of this year’s nightclub shooting in Orlando, it was tech-enabled, secular crowdfunding that made headlines for instantaneous millions raised.

Related: An Impulse to Give: Bad News Drives Crowdfunding. But What Else Can?

In spite of all this, it's doubtful that crowdfunding will ever actually replace church giving. In many ways, it’s a supplement or addition, filling in the spaces that religion leaves open. As Orlando shows, there’s also a geographic component to crowdfunding’s effectiveness. For causes that make national headlines, digital dollars can flow much faster than traditional philanthropy, and from many different places at once. Crowd cash can also provide seed funding to popular social and entrepreneurial activities, increasing their chances and their visibility.

And crowdfunding need not be mutually exclusive with religious fundraising. While churches aren’t known for their social media savvy, they're catching up. There’s nothing preventing churches and faith-based charities from using crowdfunding websites to raise money, and many are doing exactly that, with several platforms like FaithLauncher specifically catering to this audience.

The bottom line is that society is getting ever more secular, and for many Americans, religion no longer forms a foundation for ethical and spiritual life. It makes sense that charitable patterns would change as a result. But we're a long way from seeing the fall of one mass philanthropy paradigm and the triumph of another.

Related:Crowdfunding: Who Donates, and Why?