Faith in Philanthropy: The awesome power of belief


When you look at the largest piece of the pie in the annual report on American philanthropy, Giving USA*, it is perhaps natural to think of it as a separate category, disconnected from “secular” good works pursued by nonprofits in other categories. Religion, of course, is deeply enmeshed in our histories, our constitutional foundations, and the way we find meaning when confronting our own mortality and that of our loved ones.

But keeping faith in its own box is a mistake. It diminishes our ability to get things done, no matter what our cause. First, communities we seek to engage to do good work are often organized on faith principles. Second, organized faiths, both established and emerging, have significant effects on our public and personal lives – and we may very well be experiencing a new surge of energy on this front. And, finally, our ability to share beliefs in things we cannot see, whether they are spiritual or aspirational, is a terrific power we should all seek to appreciate and understand better. It is what gives purpose to the work we do.

Professor David King rightfully reminds us that focusing primarily on giving to congregations undercounts the role of faith-based communities in education, health, human services, and international giving. Indeed, secular governmental policies to support community development at home and abroad collaborate directly with faith communities. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development engages faith-based community organizations because they “form the bedrock of our society.” USAID has a similar effort to support its work abroad. It joined our Lake Institute on Faith & Giving and our Muslim Philanthropy Initiative at the Vatican’s first gathering on faith and philanthropy last fall.

Too much of this-worldly civic activity takes place in faith communities for them to be ignored. Whether or not you are a booster of World Vision, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Notre Dame or Yeshiva universities, The Salvation Army, your parochial school, or your local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, faith is the common theme. Ordained leaders of different faiths have also been important framers of our public discourse as well as our sense of civic duty and civic responsibility, with Martin Luther King Jr. being the signal American example of the twentieth century.  

Keeping religion out of the public realm is wise counsel when religious difference is used to motivate conflict and exclusion. Perhaps this is why many view giving to religion as fundamentally different from giving to all other areas. In the U.S. giving to religion is declining as a share of total giving. At the same time, we see a decrease in traditional religious affiliation. But it would be a mistake to think that faith is so easily separable and that legacy religions somehow exhaust what faith is about in civil society.  

Congregational attendance and affiliation may not be measuring the innovation and vibrancy of contemporary faith communities, as “signs of life are popping up elsewhere: in conversations with chaplains, in communities started online that end up forming in-person bonds as well, in social-justice groups rooted in shared faith.”  Writing in The Atlantic, Wendy Cadge and Elan Babchuk see a “swell of spiritual creativity” in the “tectonic shift in the landscape of American religious life.” 

I like to remember this insight as I read interpretations of how politics and other ideologies are rushing in to substitute for the decline in affiliation with traditional religions. Often the assumption is that these new spiritualities, like their more traditional counterparts, pull us away from the kind of rational discourse through which we can bargain and compromise about concrete, tangible things that need to be dealt with in arranging the affairs of the world.  

This misses the point and the power of faith. It is inescapable, even required, for us to have purpose and meaning in what we do. It is sometimes not even religious. The affection and belief in the nation that emerged in the nineteenth century was famously termed an “imagined community” by Benedict Anderson. We have seen subsequent widespread collective beliefs in the value of other entities that only exist because we agree to believe that they do. In different periods and places the state and the market have dominated our aspirations for what to believe in as we build for the future.  

Finally, in the everyday work we do faith need not be fervent or sublime. Sometimes it is as simple as a vision statement and list of values. The key point is that there is no science or algorithm to tell us what purpose to pursue or what to value. This is the domain of normative knowledge, about what should be, something that preoccupies the humanities that are currently out of favor in universities. 

Take strategic planning as an example. We focus on goals and metrics and evaluation, but the goal of the exercise is to imagine and share a faith in a reality that does not yet exist, then plan how to make it a reality. The technology based on faith that built the great edifices of human civilization over multiple generations is today distilled into vision and mission statements for our workplaces. 

When it takes the form of a mundane tool, faith allows us to imagine together for all kinds of useful reasons. One useful endeavor that I have spent many years pursuing is education. 

I have a clear recollection of a convocation that began the academic year at Brown University in 1995. The president spoke eloquently about the fact that we had no evidence of the fruits of future discovery to which our enterprise was devoted. We could not be certain that the education we so valued would yield what we all gathered there to sow and reap. He convinced us that the very foundation of the rational institution devoted to advancing knowledge with evidence was grounded in nothing more concrete than our shared faith.  

On that fall afternoon in Providence, Vartan Gregorian, who later led Carnegie Corporation for almost a quarter century, revealed the workings of a powerful human tool that allows us to devote ourselves collectively to what exists only in our shared imagination. At a time when the academy is suffering a crisis of faith,  our Lake Institute on Faith & Giving is integral to who we are at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. It helps us explore the power of shared belief in philanthropy as a potential source of dignified possibilities that we have only begun to imagine.

Amir Pasic signature

Amir Pasic

Eugene R. Tempel Dean

*Giving USA is published by Giving USA Foundation. It is researched and written by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. 

Lake Institute builds upon its legacy of understanding faith and giving

By David P. King

Twenty years ago, Lake Institute on Faith & Giving was established by Karen Lake Buttrey, Donald Buttrey, and Lilly Endowment Inc. to honor the legacy and generosity of the late Thomas H. and Marjorie Lake. Ever since our founding we have sought to honor the Lake family’s philanthropic values by fostering a deeper understanding of the dynamic relationship between faith and giving for individuals, institutions, and our local communities.

In the United States, giving to religion has always remained by far the largest charitable subsector (27% of all giving in 2021), according to Giving USA, published by Giving USA Foundation and researched and written by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Religious traditions, practices, values, and community also are some of the best predictors for giving and volunteering. The fact that people of faith give more—and more often—to both religious and secular causes is not up for debate. Yet, what that means for fundraisers, planned giving officers, and nonprofit leaders in working with donors is less clear. Religion, meaning, and money are not always an easy set of topics to discuss, yet Lake Institute has focused its work at this intersection for two decades. 

Lake Institute has expanded understanding of the many connections between faith and giving, and has served as catalyst for further reflection and exploration of the power of philanthropy to bring about beneficial change. In encouraging conversation and reflection on individual giving, the Institute serves as a fitting memorial to the legacy and values of Thomas and Marjorie Lake. It continues their shared effort to encourage purposeful participation in the life of one’s community, whether inspired by one’s faith or motivated by the same values that shaped their lives.

Lake Institute on Faith & Giving is proud to be embedded within the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy as it explores the intersection of faith and giving through research, education, and public conversation. Lake Institute serves as a bridge between the academy and faith-based organizations or networks, and actively shares information and insights in both directions. We conduct and encourage research on faith and giving, shaped by insight from practitioners. We translate research findings into educational programs, resources, and events for practitioners; and we convene key partners and influencers to help move forward public understanding about the nature and importance of faith and giving. We work within and among faith traditions, seeking to reflect and support the diversity of religious expression in the American context. 


Our research has focused on religious traditions broadly as well as the specific ways in which faith and giving impacts individuals, institutions, and communities. For instance, we have brought scholars together to discuss how various religious traditions practice generosity. We have explored individual donors’ stories of the role faith plays in their giving. We have focused on large-scale research in congregations and faith-based nonprofits to consider the uniqueness of these institutions within the third sector. And we have focused on how faith and values serve as a key factor in understanding and cooperating in efforts to build vibrant communities for shared lives together. 


Perhaps the most well-known aspect of Lake Institute’s work is our training programs. Studying, teaching, and understanding religious motivations for giving allows for more effective fundraising and outreach, across the nonprofit sector. By pairing the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy’s groundbreaking research with Lake Institute’s on-the-ground knowledge of religious traditions, we translate an understanding of statistics and trends into practical tools and strategies. Even more important than the how to, we address the why. Akin to our colleagues in The Fund Raising School, each year we train more than a thousand leaders to build both skills and wisdom in leading organizations and working with donors at the intersection of faith and giving. 

For more than a decade, we have offered the Executive Certificate in Religious Fundraising (ECRF). Currently, ECRF is an eight-week online course with a practical application project. It provides the research, tools, and customized training to meet the growing needs of leaders in religious communities and fundraisers of faith-based organizations. Its focus is on the cultural, organizational, and philanthropic practices unique to religious institutions. These practices in turn enable donors motivated by spiritual and religious values to experience the joy of generous giving. 

Working with leadership teams of clergy and laity in congregations, our Cultivating Generous Congregations program helps to map the new landscape of religious giving and provides you and your team with tools to help you build a culture of generosity unique to your congregation’s needs and challenges.

In addition to these regular courses, we often design custom training for a wide variety of constituents, and we regularly share what we have learned through presentations at events and conferences around the country. We are always eager to work together with new partners to consider what topics and training may best fit their needs. 

Public Conversation

Leaders need access to resources as well as training opportunities. We share original content to support leaders of religious organizations through our biweekly newsletter, Insights. Recently, we also launched a new, searchable Resource Library that brings together resources from Lake Institute’s archives and from the wide landscape of faith and giving today. We would love to link the best resources from your organization for others to discover through this resource library. We also have developed new resources and tools to expand and deepen conversations about faith, philanthropy, and the future of American communities, which are free and accessible whenever leaders need them.  

At Lake Institute, we think the questions of faith and giving are present and pressing, not only within traditions and communities of practice, but also across institutions and sectors, and wherever the different dimensions of our lives (work, faith, family, society) intersect. We also know that when we turn to issues of life, legacy, and planned giving in particular, faith and values should be at the top of the list. Yet, too often they are overlooked for lack of comfort or consideration. Working together, we will continue to bring discussions of faith and giving to the fore in fundraising and philanthropic practices. Please reach out if we can find ways to explore these topics together (

A version of this article first appeared inthe February 2023 issue of Planned Giving Today. 

Lake Lecture 2023: Religious traditions, generosity, and civil society

Dr. Mona Siddiqui, internationally acclaimed expert on interfaith relations and Christian-Muslim relations, cultural observer, and BBC Radio commentator, will deliver Lake Institute on Faith & Giving’s 18th annual Thomas H. Lake Lecture in Indianapolis on March 2, 2023.

In her remarks, “Art, Philanthropy and Belonging: The Disruptive Nature of Giving,” Siddiqui will focus on the transformative power of religious traditions that encourage giving, which lead to a shared sense of belonging and to the relationships necessary for community and civil society.

“Religiosity has always played a major role in giving and volunteering. But trends in the percentage of Americans who affiliate with religious traditions are declining alongside declining participation in giving and volunteering. What does that mean for our life together?” said David P. King, the Karen Lake Buttrey Director of Lake Institute. “Dr. Siddiqui will address these big questions, reminding us of the role religious traditions play in encouraging our giving and disrupting our tendencies toward individualism and self-preservation, which is vital to creating flourishing communities and civil society. There is no one who has both thought more deeply about these topics and their practical importance than Dr. Siddiqui,” King said.

The event, which will be held in person and livestreamed, is free and open to the public; registration is requested. A reception will follow the in-person event. All past Lake Lectures are archived and available.

Equitable Giving Lab will measure giving for under-resourced populations with help from $3 million grant

The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy is creating a new digital resource, The Equitable Giving Lab, that will bring an equity lens to philanthropy by measuring funding for under-resourced groups. The Equitable Giving Lab will address the current lack of centralized data on charitable giving to diverse communities and is made possible through $3 million in anchor funding from

The Lab will provide information about charitable giving to nonprofits focused on the LGBTQ+, BIPOC, military veteran, and women’s and girls’ communities. It will be the first resource to measure charitable contributions from individuals, foundations, and corporations to these organizations, including trends over time.

The Equitable Giving Lab will be a one-stop source for high-quality, publicly available data about charitable giving to organizations focused on each of these under-resourced communities. It will help nonprofits, journalists, researchers and the public understand giving patterns to these organizations. The Lab will also better equip donors and funders who want to prioritize equity and inclusion with data to inform effective strategies and to create greater impact.

“The Equitable Giving Lab will serve as the gold standard for understanding the current funding landscape and where gaps exist. The COVID-19 pandemic, along with the movement for racial justice, brought renewed attention to vast disparities among diverse populations. Measuring the scale of under-investment in specific communities is the next step needed to better align resources with society’s most urgent needs,” said Una Osili, Ph.D., Associate Dean for Research and International Programs and Dean’s Fellow for the Mays Family Institute on Diverse Philanthropy, both at the school.

The Women & Girls Index (WGI)—the first comprehensive index that measures charitable giving to women’s and girls’ organizations in the United States—was created in 2019 by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, part of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, and is updated annually. The WGI will serve as the model for creating and updating similar indices for the LGBTQ+ community, racial and ethnic groups, and military veterans over the next few years, and will be incorporated into the Equitable Giving Lab. The LGBTQ+ index will be the first to be developed and is expected to be released in late spring or early summer 2023. In addition to informing practice, data from the indices will help scholars of nonprofits and philanthropy apply an equity lens to their research.

“While there is growing awareness of the equity gaps in philanthropy, there is a significant lack of research on this topic,” said Amir Pasic, Ph.D., the Eugene R. Tempel Dean of the school. “Most philanthropy data is in aggregate form; the Equitable Giving Lab will bring a more nuanced lens to this information. We thank for supporting this advancement in understanding and addressing these equity gaps.”

“The expertise needed to analyze and share high-quality, longitudinal data can be costly and time-consuming, and only a handful of organizations have the requisite interest and skill,” said Andrew Dunckelman, Head of Impact and Insights at “We are impressed by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy’s research accomplishments, especially their development of the Women & Girls Index, and we are pleased to support this important innovation in measuring charitable giving to these communities.”

Community leaders and sector experts will be recruited to provide insights on research and development of the Lab and the individual indices.


Public Policy and Philanthropy Series: Dr. Julie Morita

Wednesday, September 25, 2024

2:30 p.m.3:30 p.m.

IUPUI Campus Center - 420 University Blvd Indianapolis, IN 46202


Diane Kaplan, senior fellow at the school, will moderate a discussion with Julie Morita, Executive Vice President of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

See all events