It used to be that many people gave to their particular house of worship to get a prominent pew or extra blessings. Or because their grandparents and parents had always attended that church or synagogue or mosque.
That is changing. Religious institutions are still the single biggest recipients of overall charity donations, according to the 2015 survey by the Giving USA Foundation. About 32 percent — $119.3 billion — of a total of $373.25 billion Americans gave to charities went to churches, synagogues, mosques and temples.
But that is down from about 50 percent since 1990, according to Rick Dunham, vice chairman of Giving USA, and the percentage has been “in steady decline for some time.” The religion category in the survey refers solely to religious institutions, not religious charities such as the Salvation Army, he said.
Part of the reason is an overall decline in the number of people who identify with a religious group. According to the Pew Research Center 2014 Religious Landscape Study, 23 percent of Americans say they are not affiliated with any religion, up from 16 percent in 2007.
But it’s also true that “younger people give differently,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “It’s about expressing their commitment to core values and their obligation to sustain those in need. In prior generations, giving to Jewish organizations was thought of as automatic. Now the younger generation doesn’t feel constrained by doing what their parents or grandparents did.”
It is not just younger people. Joseph Cohn, 57, was raised in a conservative Jewish household in Hazleton, Pa., where attending temple was a regular part of his life.
“My great-grandfather, my grandfather and my father were all presidents of the shul,” he said.
When he and his wife moved to suburban New York, they decided to join the Reform Larchmont Temple, partly so their daughter could attend the preschool.
Mr. Cohn paid full temple dues, which can top $3,000 for a family when including twice-weekly religious school and other fees. Unlike churches, which collect money during services, most Reform and Conservative synagogues set an annual fee for members to pay, although almost all have sliding scales and welcome those who cannot afford to pay.
“I wanted to see whether or not I could feel part of a community built around religion, and in the end, it just didn’t do it for me,” Mr. Cohn said. Although he still frequently reads about Judaism, he said, and donates small amounts to some Jewish charities, his family no longer contributes to the temple.
Jeffrey Sirkman, senior rabbi at Larchmont Temple, is well aware of the pattern.
“Among the primary reasons people give is for the life cycle moments,” he said. “Joining a temple shouldn’t just be a transaction, where you get three funerals, a wedding and two bar mitzvahs and you’re done. The goal is to enter into a lifelong relationship.”
How to maintain that relationship with religion “has been an ongoing conversation since I joined the ministry 30 years ago,” said the Rev. Steven D. Martin, a spokesman for the National Council of Churches.
“In the past, there was a general sense that the church was a trustworthy institution,” he said. Even if there were conflicts, such as during the fight for civil rights in the 1960s, “there was still an underlying sense that ‘This is my church, and this benefits the community, even if I disagree with its stand on civil rights.’”
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