And giving trends in the Canadian Church
Stella writes "fifty" in an elegant cursive script and places the cheque in an envelope, ready for the offering plate. Every Sunday she prays for the church as she makes her gift.
Stella can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound, but she has delivered more casseroles than Superman ever could. She taught kindergarten Sunday school for 20 years, a feat of patience Wonder Woman can’t equal. She has never swooped down to stop a train, but her prayers have moved mountains. Stella is a superhero in comfortable shoes.
Stella donates about $3,000 per year to charity, which is ten times more than the typical Canadian donor. That makes her a generosity superhero too.
If the church realizes how extraordinary Stella is, they often neglect to say anything until her funeral. If more local churches would borrow the words of the Apostle Paul and say, "I thank God for your generosity, for the surpassing grace of God in your life," what other amazing things might happen?
What makes Stella so special?
It’s no exaggeration that there are people like Stella. I have met them as part of my research into charitable giving. For privacy reasons though, I’ll talk in this article about Stella, an imaginary composite based on research.
Statistics Canada reports the average donor gave $310 in 2019. That’s the median – half of donors gave more, half gave less, counting up total giving in a year to all causes.
Already by Valentine’s Day every year, Stella’s giving has passed that annual median just in what she gives to her own congregation. She doesn’t even pause to consider that milestone and instead presses on with regular giving, her eyes fixed on Jesus.
Stella doesn’t compare herself to others, but just for context let’s note that many weekly worship attenders give around $1,000 annually. And about half of Canadians don’t give at all, according to income tax data.
Among church members the number who don’t give at all is about 40 per cent, although data is lacking. Church treasurers nod when they hear this number. As one donor told me, "There’s people that give and people that don’t."
Fewer, older donors giving more
The number of people who don’t give is increasing. Total charitable giving is up, but it’s thanks to people like Stella digging deeper. The trends are toward fewer, older donors giving more.
"What’s gonna happen when the seniors are gone?" one donor asked me.
He’s right to be worried. Giving has become concentrated. About 10 per cent of donors give twothirds of total donations to all causes, religious and otherwise. That’s 10 per cent of donors, not 10 per cent of the population. A declining base of donors like Stella keeps churches and charities afloat.
After all, Stella doesn’t give only to the church.
Giving has become concentrated. About 10 per cent of donors give two-thirds of total donations to all causes, religious and otherwise.
Mary & Joseph Hospital Foundation
Stella’s late husband Abe had cancer treatment at the Mary & Joseph Hospital 22 years ago. He lived for another five years. Stella volunteered at the hospital during those years and for a few years afterward. She still describes Mary & Joseph Hospital as her hospital.
The Mary & Joseph Hospital Foundation keeps in touch with Stella. They send her a Christmas card with a handwritten note every year, thanking her for her support. Stella attends the annual memorial service at the hospital gardens and always donates in Abe’s memory.
The nice lady from the hospital foundation drops off Stella’s receipt at her home each year, lately just waving through the window, but previously coming in for a cup of tea and a chat.
Stella knows exactly how the hospital could use a bequest – she would designate her gift to the cancer treatment centre. The hospital newsletters tell stories of how other people have made gifts in their will. Stella finds comfort knowing a gift to the hospital would help people in the community, just as the hospital helped her and her husband.
Abe and Stella’s names are listed on the donor wall of the hospital. While I have a complicated relationship with donor walls, I advise clergy to read the donor wall when they make hospital visits. It’s interesting data. While churches assume people don’t want to talk about money, hospitals ask if people would like to talk.
So many good causes
The nice lady from the hospital foundation is not the only fundraiser reaching out to Stella. Stella gets a lot of mail. Fundraising letters might be Stella’s kryptonite. Deciding where to give is difficult. So many causes, so many good causes.
Some choices are easy – the church, of course, and the woman undergoing medical treatment being supported by the congregation.
Stella gives to local families in need, mission workers, Bible camp. But multiple Christmas gift catalogues come on the same day. She gets letters from different charities that do something along the same lines. People come to the door asking for donations. Stella gives to the causes which are most familiar, but she struggles with the constant decision making.
Directing Stella to start researching charities online is not a good idea. Stella is not online. More information would only overwhelm her. Every charity has a graph showing how well they use money.
Beyond an annual receipt
One organization that does not send mail is Stella’s church. They send a receipt in January and that is all. That’s it. They have never said thank you. Stella gives the receipt to her daughter-in-law when she does Stella’s taxes, along with the receipts from the hospital foundation and other charities.
The church has an opportunity to bless:
- Stella with the gift of gratitude
- The congregation by hearing Stella’s testimony of faithful giving
- The future congregation through asking for a bequest.
I encourage her church to thank Stella because acknowledging Stella’s generosity starts the conversation. Send her a letter and then call to make sure she got it. Tell Stella how much the church appreciates her faithful prayers and loyal giving over many years.
Gratitude demonstrates good stewardship of people and the church needs to take good care of Stella. Will Stella still get lots of fundraising letters? Yes. But she will know she is valued by her church. Her generosity is making a difference. Knowing that could help her leave some fundraising letters prayerfully unopened.
Listen to her story
Generous people like Stella don’t just fall off the turnip truck. How did she learn to be generous? Stella’s testimony is one of the best stewardship sermons going. What was it like to be born during the Depression? Is being a child during the Second World War why she never wastes food? How do her giving and praying connect? How has God helped her during hard times?
Bless the church by having the pastor or a family member interview Stella during Sunday worship. Stella’s granddaughter could make a video.
Stella might share the story of when Abe lost his job in the 1950s with a baby on the way. The church launched a building campaign and the couple pledged in faith, trusting God would take care of them. Abe landed a job at the Ford plant the very next day. Stella has never forgotten. She can say from experience that God always provides.
Stella will thank the church for their prayers and support when Abe was in hospital. Humble person that she is, Stella will thank the church for listening to her story. The rest of the church will be wiping away tears. Above all, God will be glorified.
Tell Stella how much the church appreciates her faithful prayers and loyal giving over many years.
Don’t wait to celebrate. While the church wishes Stella could carry on indefinitely, like the Queen, she is mortal. Stella knows this already – it’s the church that is reluctant to talk.
Ask Stella if she would like her legacy of faithful giving to shine on through a gift in her will. She trusts the church. Does the church trust Stella, believe Stella is brave enough for this conversation? Many charities ask Stella for money. Does Stella know the church would be honoured to receive a bequest from her? Tell the story of what her gift will do.
While Stella will hear, "Well done, good and faithful servant" over yonder, I hope the church can thank faithful donors like her on this side of the grave. Her generosity testifies to God’s faithfulness. Her lifetime of generous giving and trust in God’s provision tells a story truer and more powerful than any superhero. Are we listening?
Lori Guenther Reesor is a stewardship coach and speaker. For her doctoral research she interviewed donors in church basements across five provinces. Her book, Growing a Generous Church: A Year in the Life of Peach Blossom Church (www.LGReesor.com), tells how a fictional congregation learned the spiritual discipline of giving. It may be the only theology book with an illustration of someone using a snowblower.
Illustrations of Stella by Nicoleta Ionescu. Hospital illustration from Shutterstock.com. Praying hands by Janice Van Eck.