Religion and Education Account for Half of all Charitable Gifts

Howard Lake
Culture + Religion /25 Sep 2017

Religion and Education Account for Half of all Charitable Gifts

How does the philanthropy landscape take shape each year? Is there an increase in charitable giving or a decrease? What are the priorities of the individuals, foundations and corporations who gave in 2016?

The answers to those questions aren’t just helpful to development directors, but instead offer insights on how Americans are stepping up to meet the needs of their communities and causes. Those insights are especially helpful in understanding what motivates giving within religious education communities.

The annual Giving USA report, released in June 2017, shows that overall philanthropy was up 2.7 percent in 2016 with increases across all sectors tracked by the Chicago-based organization. The $390 billion total continues a trend that has seen 2015 and 2016 at the highest levels of giving.

Philanthropy accounted for an estimated 2.1 percent of GDP in the United States, according to data from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, the researchers who completed the report.

Giving to environmental causes saw the greatest increase, and a shift to arts organizations, health and environmental donations was noted by Una Osili, Ph.D., director of research at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Yet religion and education stay at the top of all philanthropic gifts.

Together, they account for 47 percent – nearly half – of all charitable giving in 2016, and two-thirds of that is faith-based giving. Yet for some donors, their commitment is a combination of the two. That’s the case in Los Angeles, where the Sinai Akiba Academy will have a new name for the Jewish day school.

Sinai Akiba has announced a transformative gift from the Alice and Nahum Lainer Family Foundation that offers a study itself into why many donors are motivated to support religious education, regardless of the size of the gift.

First, there is the alignment of personal philosophy and philanthropic passion. Nahum Lainer’s father, Simha, was committed to Jewish education in a faith tradition where that education and identity are closely linked. The commitment to Chinukh, or חינוך in Hebrew, is viewed as the touchstone of a living faith that connects the rich history of Judaism in antiquity with the future of Judaism in modernity. The love of Torah and Talmud, the legacy of Rabbi Akiva in developing the Mishnah and Midrash teachings, are a foundation from which all other commitments to religious observance and social justice arise. The Lainer’s philanthropy, then, is an investment in education to ensure that Judaism’s soul is sustained.

“With this gift, students for generations to come will continuously forge a Jewish identity that connects them to Judaism’s enduring traditions and shared history, while ensuring that they claim and enact the auspicious future of the Jewish people,” the school said in a statement. Although the magnitude of the gift is unusual, it is for the same reason that Roman Catholics, Muslims, Hindus and other religious communities support faith-based education – often, as in this case, attached to their places of worship.

Second, there is the personal connection. All three of Alice and Nahum’s own children were educated at Sinai Akiba Academy, as are their grandchildren. Nahum served previously as a board chairman of the school, where his son Gary is the current chair, having served for the past four years. The family’s multigenerational commitment spans decades as the school approaches its 50th anniversary next year.

“We inherited our passion for education from our parents,” the Lainers said.

While an element of personal connection is present in all charitable giving – think here about the gifts to support Alzheimer’s research from families touched by the disease, or the positive response to public radio appeals from listeners who value the programming – it is different here. In religion and education, and especially when the two are combined, the personal connection is rooted in community immersion.

The data about personal or foundation philanthropy carefully measured by the reports doesn’t tell the story of community centered in the sacred. It has no quantitative grasp of decades of gathering together during Yomim Noraim, the Jewish Days of Awe bookended by the High Holy Days. It doesn’t see that in religious education, the giving is inextricably linked with the meaning and motivation of what it means to be human, and how that is expressed in the cultural connections and social fabric of the community.

Those carefully cultivated relationships – layered through thousands of meetings and meals, mourning and marriages – are, in essence, what defines the philanthropy itself. It’s no wonder, then, that nearly half of all giving in the United States, from all sources, is an expression of commitment to a religious or educational experience. Whether local parishioners or university alumni, the gift relies on the identity.

Finally, there is the fusion of the two. While the size of the Lainer Family Foundation and its endowment at Sinai Akiba is rare, the inspiration behind it is not. Tapping into philanthropy that supports religious education can be stimulated by charismatic leaders and well-crafted campaigns, but those messages – even the big ask – are really just a reflection of the history and the values that are internalized by the donor. Where education itself is revered within a culture of reverence, so is the practice of philanthropy.

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