Faith In Philanthropy – time to tackle Australia’s reticence

By: Paul Oslington   |   , Professor of Economics and Theology, Alphacrucis University College, Sydney.   |

Religion is a sensitive topic for Australians. From the early days of the colony our mix of Anglicans used to the privileges of an established church, aggrieved Scottish Presbyterians, and Irish Catholics meant that religious discussion threatened to ignite sectarian conflict. Australia has mostly avoided this by not talking about religion in public, while enacting a distinctively Australian Christian secularism combined neutrality between different Christian denominations with willingness of the state to work with the churches in education and social services. It is a very different approach to religion to Brittan with its established churches, and to the US where there is a much sharper separation between churches and the state.

This characteristically Australian reticence about public discussion of religion applies to discussion of the relationship between religion and philanthropy. This is despite the importance of religious motivations and networks to giving, and the dominance of religious organisations in our educational, social service, international development and other sectors. 

Reliable data on the religious dimensions of Australian philanthropy of is scarce. We have to be very careful transferring US research to Australia because of our very different religious culture and institutions.  For instance, giving to churches in the US is tax-deductible and carefully documented, whereas in Australia this is not the case. Taxation treatment of philanthropic foundations is also quite different. One advantage we have in Australia is the extraordinary work of the National Church Life Survey which happens every five years, tied to the census and including almost all churches. This has given us now six waves of longitudinal data on religious giving and volunteering to both religious and nonreligious causes, as well as motivations for giving. Church attenders, especially the more faithful attenders, are generous givers and volunteers both to their church  and to a wide variety of other causes. Levels of giving to the church are very high  in newer Pentecostal churches, but large philanthropic foundations are more commonly associated with the older Catholic, Anglican and Protestant churches.  It is very hard to disentangle the effects of religious teachings from the effects of being part of a group where others give and where one is regularly asked to give.  Beliefs and institutions are after all mutually reinforcing. Other data such as from the recent Study for the Economic Impact of Religion on Society (SEIROS) project paints a similar picture of religious giving and attempts to estimate its economic impact.

As well as being givers, Philanthropy Australia members are involved in charitable organisations that depend on philanthropic funding. Approximately 40% of social services work in Australia is done by organisations with a religious association. Well over 40% of Australian children attend non-government schools, overwhelmingly with a Christian foundation, but there are also many Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist schools. In higher education we are seeing the rise of Christian universities, already two associated with the Australia’s largest religious group the Catholic Church, and I’m involved in creating a Pentecostal university, with Pentecostals now being the second largest religious group, and the religious group with the highest proportion of attendees holding a degree. In healthcare the Catholic Church has a strong presence, along with the Adventist church.

What is the future of the religious dimension of philanthropy in Australia? One thing we definitely need is richer data on religious motivations for giving, especially large bequests, and Philanthropy Australia has a role in this. I think it is fair to say this has been a blind spot for the organisation in recent years. The other thing we need though is more open discussion of the religious dimensions of philanthropy now that Australia seems to have moved beyond the sectarianism that inhibited discussion in earlier times. Of course, we now have a much more diverse religious landscape through immigration from non-Christian countries.  

How will the well-publicised drop in the proportion of Australians identifying as Christians in the census effect future giving, both the total amount and patterns of giving? Census data on religious affiliation of course is notoriously poorly correlated with actual behaviour. Will younger Australians create philanthropic foundations in the same way as their parents and grandparents generations? Will the influence of religious organisations in social services and education continue to rise? One of the paradoxes of recent history has been increasing numbers of parents choosing religious schooling even though religious affiliation has been declining. Another trend has been governments making increasing use of religious organisations to deliver social services under contract.

These are important issues, so please come along and contribute to discussion in our upcoming webinar:  Have Faith in Philanthropy – the first steps to understanding faith-based giving, on Tuesday the 9th of August at 12:00–1:15pm. 

Register here


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Jul. 29, 2022

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