Stewardship: Why People Give

Most church people I have talked to would expect charitable giving in the USA to be down. The statistics say otherwise. In fact, charitable giving per capita has remained basically the same for decades. In other words, the amount of money people give in comparison to what they have has remained constant. What is not constant is the number of places that they can give. The number of non-profit agencies competing for charitable giving goes up every year. So giving stays about the same while the competition for those dollars is growing and shows no sign of stopping.

The church is losing this battle in part because it does not understand why people give while non-profits are studying why people give.



J. Clif Christopher shares in his book Not Your Parent’s Offering Plate about research into why people give to charities. There have been a number of studies done looking at why people make charitable giving decisions. These are not limited to churches but also to other non-profits. In study after study asking people why they made the gift choices that they did, three answers float to the top. These three are always there and always in the same order. Knowing them will change how you communicate about stewardship.

They are 1. Belief in the mission of the organization. 2. Trust in the Leadership. 3. Financial stability of the institution. Let’s look at these each briefly.

1. Belief in the Mission of the Organization—People make giving decisions primarily based on what the organization does. People want to know that their gift is going to go to a great purpose. Most importantly, they have to believe that the purpose of the organization is a purpose that they also believe in.

2. Trust in the Leadership—Like it or not, people judge an organization based on its leadership. Givers report that trust as crucial to their giving decisions. People want to know that they can trust the leaders to follow through with the mission to which they gave.

3. Financial Stability of the Institution—People don’t want to give to a sinking ship. They want to give to an organization that is going to be around and accomplishing its mission for a long time.

Non-profits understand these reasons.   Watch a commercial from St. Jude’s. It is normally a story told by an important person about a kid who desperately needs the research that your donation goes to pay for. They clearly state their mission.

When your college or seminary gets a new president or professor or board member, they send out big announcements because they want their donors to know who the leadership is.

All non-profits have bad quarters and bad financial reports, but you never hear those publicized. But when a non-profit has good numbers they put it in all of their material.

Now, think about how we talk about finances in our churches. How often does someone stand up in October or November and say something like

“Uh-oh. I have bad news. We are in trouble again. We are $x,xxx behind on our budget and if we don’t step up then we won’t make budget for the year. I want to encourage everybody to give what they can.”

Think about what we have just communicated to the church.

1. You just communicated that the mission of your organization is to stay open. That is not a very compelling mission. There will be a few committed members that will respond to that kind of plea, but young people won’t. New people won’t.

2. You just destroyed people’s trust in your leadership. Didn’t we have this conversation last year? Why do we always get behind at this time of the year? Couldn’t anyone see this coming?

3. What about the financial stability of the institution? You just announced that you were in trouble. If you are like many churches you probably even publish every week in the bulletin and every month in the newsletter how bad things are. Stop it. Fear is not a Biblical motive for giving. It may help you in the short run, but finances based on scare tactics will only ensure your long term financial demise.

Here is the fact- as non-profits get better at asking for charitable donation, the church is hurting itself in the way it talks about finances.

In my next couple blogs I will talk more about how to respond to this information, and I cannot express enough how critical the J Clif Christopher’s book is for pastors and leaders.


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