Focus and Nonprofits

Religion plays role in local philanthropy

But nonprofit leaders express concerns about younger generations.

October 10, 2014
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Degage Kitchen
In addition to money, time is also a valuable commodity for organizations like Dégagé, which counts on community help to provide and serve meals to underprivileged. Courtesy Dégagé Ministries

Does genuine religious faith make a person more generous?

In West Michigan, many nonprofits answer that question with a resounding “yes.”

Historically, the region has been nationally recognized as a hub of ardent religious conviction — much of which is tied to its Christian Reformed and Roman Catholic roots. In 2013, the Holland/Grand Haven area was ranked the sixth most religious place in the country by both Insider Monkey’s 10 Most Religious Cities in America and City Lab’s America’s Most (and Least) Religious Metro Areas.

That religious legacy, according to many local nonprofit leaders, has actually led to an organically generous culture of philanthropy.

“Do I believe religion plays a role in West Michigan? Yes, I absolutely do. The role that religion plays in people’s lives and our city’s life in Grand Rapids may depend on the type of religion they practice,” said Cindy Smies, director of marketing and communication for Mel Trotter Ministries, a downtown Grand Rapids shelter.

“It’s not uncommon to see a church every few blocks while driving through Grand Rapids. … Grand Rapids is filled with kind and generous people who have helped Mel Trotter Ministries exist without ever needing or using government funding. Although we are a faith-based organization, we do not require any person to claim faith in order to receive our services.”

Faith plays a significant role in West Michigan philanthropy, agreed Stuart Ray, executive director of the Guiding Light Mission, a downtown Grand Rapids rescue shelter that helps rehabilitate troubled men. Almost all of the approximately 7,000 donors Guiding Light has are faith-based, with about 10 percent to 15 percent of them tithing on a monthly basis, he said.

Some of the wealthiest families in the city are strong believers in both God and charity, he said.

“We have a number of very successful individuals in town, and many of them go to church. My background is business, and I resonate that these are gifts from God,” Ray said.

“People in faith know their resources are gifts — they come from God. They are the earthly stewards of these resources and transfer them somewhere else and plan for that transfer. … After all, you can’t take it with you.”

Ray’s assessment that Grand Rapids is notably generous is supported by other sources. In 2013, NerdWallet ranked Grand Rapids the 13th most generous city in America, based on the percentage of volunteers and percentage of donated income.

“According to, 55 percent of people in West Michigan consider themselves to be religious … and I was shocked it was so low. I think that gives the people a strong moral compass as well as a desire to follow the teachings of the Bible,” said Marge Palmerlee, executive director of the downtown Grand Rapids-based Dégagé Ministries.

“Jesus calls us to care for the least of these among us and to love one another. I think these teachings are lived out in the lives of the people in West Michigan.”

Although West Michigan has many prevalent religious altruists, nonprofit leaders are clear that “saints” don’t own the copyright on the word “generosity” and it would be unfair not to mention the contributions from those who do not practice any faith, Palmerlee said, acknowledging that several individuals who have no religious belief volunteer at Dégagé in order to better their community.

“I would like to add that we see donations from all businesses and organizations, as well, that are not faith-based,” Smies echoed. “Many corporations come alongside Mel Trotter because of our mission of helping those who cannot help themselves.”

Religious generosity, however, might not always be a staple of West Michigan’s culture. As the sun sets on the generation that came of age during the Great Depression and fought in World War II — an age group sometimes referred to as “The Greatest Generation” — subsequent generations now hold the economic power, namely baby boomers and millennials.

Although neither generation is generally considered as religious as the Greatest Generation, the millennials’ religious numbers, in particular, are somewhat troubling to local nonprofits that rely heavily on the dollars of the religious.

“Our average donor is over 62,” Ray said. “These ministries were developed by the WWII generation who did make sacrifices. They tend to tithe and they tend to be more faithful, but we see some setback in the next two generations as we see a step back from faith. It’s an internal concern.”

According to the Pew Research Center, a Washington, D.C.-based, non-partisan think tank, almost three in 10 millennials (29 percent) say they are not affiliated with a religion, marking the “highest levels of political and religious disaffiliation recorded for any generation in the quarter-century.”

“Not only are they less likely than older generations to be affiliated with any religion, they are also less likely to say they believe in God. A solid majority still do — 86 percent — but only 58 percent say they are ‘absolutely certain’ that God exists, a lower share than among older adults, according to a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project,” read a March report from Pew. “But if past is prologue, these young adults may develop a stronger belief in God over the course of their lives, just as previous generations have.”

Compared to older generations’ donation numbers, millennials are only giving “nickels and dimes,” Ray said, but this could also be attributed to the economic hardships this generation is facing professionally, he said.

“They don’t have the resources,” he said. “People coming out of college today are starting at the same wages we started at 30 years ago. The younger generations are much more encumbered.”

Palmerlee thinks another thing to take into account when considering the philanthropy of younger generations is the issue of communication, saying Dégagé is becoming very conscious of millennials’ desire to communicate and to be communicated with.

Millennials want to have short-term commitments to projects, she said, adding this is why Dégagé has started an outreach team designed for just that age group.

“What we have found is they want a different relationship with a nonprofit than their parents and grandparents did,” she said. “They want to know how their dollars are being used. They want stories.”

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