INDIANAPOLIS — More than two-thirds of congregations in a new study on congregational finances in the current recession reported that their fundraising receipts increased or remained the same in the first half of 2009 compared to 2008, even as the recession was worsening.
The findings are part of the 2009 Congregational Economic Impact Study, a joint project of the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and the Alban Institute, based in the Washington, DC area. The study was based on more than 1,500 responses, nearly all from the membership of the Alban Institute.
Almost 37 percent of congregations reported an increase in fundraising for the first half of 2009 over 2008. Another 34 percent reported that fundraising receipts stayed the same between 2008 and the first half of 2009.
Nevertheless, nearly 30 percent of congregations experienced a decrease in giving in 2009. This is 8.1 percentage points more than reported a decline in 2008.
“The recession has affected many congregations throughout the United States,” said Una Osili, research director at the Center on Philanthropy. “One-third of responding congregations reported making budget cuts in 2009 and another quarter kept their operational budget the same, not allowing for any increases in the cost of living.”
Just 6.8 percent of congregations reduced the number of full-time staff in response to the recession. Slightly more, 10.7 percent, laid off part-time staff. Nearly 16 percent did not increase staff salaries, while almost 15 percent cut utility costs and 13.6 percent reduced program costs.
“While many congregations have been hit hard by the recession, this study underscores the remarkable resilience of congregations, as evidenced in the extraordinary and imaginative ways they are reaching out to meet the needs of their parishioners and people in their community,” said William Enright, director of the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at the Center. “We frequently hear about the experiences of larger congregations and how they are coping with economic challenges, while the story of average and smaller congregations often has been wrapped in silence. This study breaks that silence.”
Congregations responded to the recession in a wide variety of ways, from feeding the homeless and providing emergency cash assistance to those in need to hosting community gardens, offering support groups and networking events for the unemployed, helping with financial planning, and increasing partnerships with other community groups.
Some congregations fared better than others. “Growth congregations,” those where attendance and finances have been growing over the past five years, were more likely to report positive fundraising results. Congregations with $600,000 to $999,999 in revenue, weekly attendance of more than 300 people, younger congregants (average age under 50), and those reporting a higher average income of congregants (greater than $60,000) were more likely to report an increase in fundraising receipts.
“Survival congregations,” those where attendance and finances have dropped by more than 10 percent over the past five years, were more likely to report a decline in fundraising. Other congregations that were more likely to report a decrease included those with annual revenue of less than $150,000, weekly attendance of less than 100 people, older congregants (average age 61 or older), and those where the average income of congregants was less than $40,000.
“This is one of the first looks we have had into the economic realities faced by American congregations during a time of global financial crisis,” said Dr. James Wind, president of the Alban Institute. “We are pleased to have partnered in opening up a fascinating and complex story of national significance. The survey results demonstrate that local congregations, which we often take for granted and treat with misleading conventional wisdom, are much more dynamic, creative, and strong than many people think. Clearly, not all congregations are alike — that is one of the major discoveries of the survey. Some are clearly struggling to make ends meet. But many more – and this will be a surprise to many — are holding their own and growing during one of the toughest seasons in our national history. More than that, the survey reveals the great variety of ways they are ministering to an overextended nation.”
The 2009 Congregational Economic Impact Study, with 1,540 respondents, is not a nationally representative study of all congregations in the U.S., but rather is drawn primarily from the Alban Institute’s membership. More than three-fourths of respondents were from Protestant denominations.