In Their Focus on Religious Giving, Romneys are Like Most American Donors

Mitt Romney's tax documents are out, and they show the GOP frontrunner and his wife donated $7 million to charity over the past two years, an amount equal to about 16.4 percent of their income. The Romneys gave to a number of secular non-profits, including the Boys and Girls Club of Boston, the Center for the Treatment of Pediatric MS, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, and Homes for Our Troops. But they donated far and away the most money–$4.1 million in cash and $2 million in stock–to the Mormon church. 

In their decision to prioritize religious giving, the Romneys are typical of American donors. When I was working at The Daily Beast in the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, we decided to take a close look at how disasters impact American charitable giving. We were surprised at the results of our research: According to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, only about one-third of all American charity–from individuals, foundations, and corporations–directly serves the poor, either within the United States or abroad. Year after year, religious organizations, typically local church groups, take home the biggest slice of American charity, even in the wake of major humanitarian crises. 

For example, Americans donated $100.63 billion to religious causes in 2010, accounting for 35 percent of all giving.

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After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Americans responded with $2.7 billion in donations over the first year. Yet this swell of support accounted for less than 1 percent of total giving in that time period. A similar pattern took shape after 9/11 and the Asian tsunami of 2004. In fact, the discrepency between emergency humanitarian giving and religious giving was so large, it was difficult for us to visualize on this chart; imagine the bar on the right as five times higher than it actually is:

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Of course, some religious giving does serve the poor, through church-run food banks, homeless shelters, and the like. But Patrick Rooney, executive director of the Center on Philanthropy, told me this is not generally the case. “A large part of that goes toward the ongoing cost of owning and operating a church,” he said, “paying for the rabbi, minister, or priest; heating and air-conditioning costs.”

2 thoughts on “In Their Focus on Religious Giving, Romneys are Like Most American Donors

  1. EB

    In addition, Dana, the money that individuals give to their congregations (even for clergy and heating bills) does benefit their communities. It represents just about the only way there is to support non-governmental institutions that build and reinforce communal life in the US — or anywhere. Social service agencies are great, but they don’t build community. Same with schools — your kids are there for a few years, then they’re not. Even disaster relief doesn’t build community ong-term. Of course some of these communities are narrow and closed-minded; but most are just trying to help people live by their values instead of their pocketbooks or their instincts. Without congregations, our entire social fabric would be tremendously weakened.

  2. lng

    Do these philanthropy stats reflect that fact that much humanitarian aid is funneled to crisis spots through “religious” organizations? For example, after a natural disaster, I often donate through American Jewish World Service, Union for Reform Judaism, or other Jewish organizations that set up specific funds for money collected on behalf of agencies operating in the crisis spot. Another example is the huge “Nothing but Nets” campaign that fights malaria. I donate to this campaign through the URJ. I am certain such donations amount to hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more, each year that may appear to be going to religious causes but is specifically earmarked for humanitarian aid.


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