Mikestrathdee’s Blog

Put first things first when it comes to giving – Big Bird may have the right idea when it comes to philanthropy – or does he?
July 11, 2011, 2:46 pm
Filed under: Charitable Giving, Financial Management, Generosity

Appeared in the July, 2011 issue of Christian Week Ontario

Who will te ach people to be generous when the church no longer reaches enough Canadians to do the job?

That provocative question came, not at a church revival meeting, but from a researcher speaking to a mostly secular audience about trends in Canadian philanthropy.

Regular church attendees give a disproportionately large share of all charitable donations, Penelope Burk told hundreds of fundraisers from across Canada at a national conference in Toronto this spring.

Not only do people who are religiously active give most of the money received by places of worship, but they also give more to secular charities than people who don’t attend church. They are more likely to maintain and increase their giving, and to volunteer, often at a leadership level, Burk said.

So the steady decline in the proportion of people that go to church regularly is a concern for the entire charitable sector, she said. Who will replace the teaching about generosity that occurs in communities of faith?

Burk thinks she has seen the answer – feathered, yellow and eight-feet tall.

In a blog post titled “Can Big Bird Save Philanthropy?” Burk  notes that Sesame Street, the TV mainstay for preschoolers, teaches financial literacy for pre-schoolers in a way that is “nothing short of brilliant.”

Cygnus Research’s national studies of Canadian donors to charity finds that the percentage of donors under 35 who  regularly attend church is in the low 20s and dropping. By comparison, 75 per cent of preschoolers watch TV, she says.

So provided that parents put their kids in front of the blue light while Big Bird and his Muppet friends are discussing the theme of “spend/save/share,” hospitals, universities and community service agencies can quit worrying about their greying donor base. There’s another generation of givers on their way – eventually, right?

Maybe not. Sesame Street is doing a service by reminding children that money is not just for spending. But one of the flaws in Burk’s analysis can be found the order in which the 3 Ss are listed – spending, saving and sharing.

According to the Vanier Institute for the Family, the average Canadian household spends about $1.48 for every dollar of disposable income. The gap between outgo and income has widened steadily over the past decade.

When spending more than we have is the norm, there is no room for saving, let alone sharing.

Friendly furry puppets reminding kids to save and share their leftovers won’t change that.

U.S. author Nathan Dungan’s “Share Save Spend” approach – see www.savesharespend.com for details – is much more helpful.  The order of the words is important.

When we exercise the spiritual discipline of giving from our first and best – “first fruits” in Old Testament agricultural terms – we aren’t just ensuring that the causes we care about are being supported.  During a financial literacy seminar I led recently, a pastor noted that he and his wife found their budgeting has been easier since making a conscious effort to increase their regular giving.

Some studies have borne this out. People who tithe tend to have fewer financial problems. The discipline required to maintain that commitment leads to good choices in other areas.

How is your church doing in helping people put first things first?