One question that we continue to get here at Varsity surrounds the naming, values and visuals of not-for-profit aging services providers. For the last several decades, the gold standard in this space was created by faith-based senior living organizations that had strong ties to churches and other religiously affiliated groups. Over the last few years, we’ve seen the identify of faith-based communities come into question.
Some providers have doubled down on their faith connections, embracing their history and including specific language in their mission, vision and values to communicate their dedication to faith-based principles. On the other hand, other providers have been slowly stripping away the overt references to faith, concerned that they might drive away residents that don’t share those same values (even if they aren’t required to subscribe to said faith in order to reside at the community). The fear that faith-based language and iconography could be costing communities residents is very real. While, on the other side of the coin, the fear of losing donor dollars from strong, faith-based donors ensures that others stay the course and lean firmly on their core values.
This led us to wonder — What effect is faith having on provider perception, and where might this trend be going in the future?
It’s no secret that religious affiliation has been on the decline in the United States. In Pew’s religious landscape study, which surveyed more than 35,000 Americans of all demographics, found that 22.8 percent of respondents identified as unaffiliated with any religious tradition at all. If we were to view that number in light of demographics, we can learn even more. Seventeen Baby Boomers (aged 50 to 64) report that religion isn’t important in their lives, with 34 percent saying they attend religious services only sporadically, and 28 percent reporting they “seldom” attend services at all. If one were to compare the Baby Boomers to Generation X or Millennials, Boomers and seniors would appear positively pious, as religious participation takes a nosedive within these demographics. Based on Pew’s findings, it would seem that being faith-based might not carry the weight it once did when someone shopped for a community.
Yet many entrance-fee, faith-based senior living organizations provide one critical service that very few others do: security. Namely, these organizations usually have a safety net in place so that, if a resident suddenly runs out of funds, he or she won’t be forced to leave the community. This kind of support is usually funded through giving programs that utilize the faith-based network that a community is tied to as a major source of giving. According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, 65 percent of Americans who claim a religious affiliation give to charity, compared to just 56 percent of those who don’t identify with a faith tradition. Interestingly, the same study found that 73 percent of all charitable giving went to either congregations or religiously affiliated charities. Secular charities only accounted for 27 percent of giving.
It’s clear that, when it comes to philanthropy, being affiliated with a religious organization is likely to significantly increase the dollars that are coming through the door; however, with the upcoming generational shifts in belief and religious affiliation, we are forced to wonder if this tradition of giving will continue. Will Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials be just as inclined to give to faith-based charities, or will they rebel against them (and the bad press they have been recently receiving) and give to more secular causes? Only time will tell.
As we speak to aging services providers who are struggling with this problem, we find that there are no clear answers. What is right for a community in the upper Midwest may not be good for a community in southern California or on the Florida coast. Understanding local demography and perceptions around faith tends to provide the best insight into the direction an organization should face.
Regardless of which way providers choose to go today, there’s sure to be continued debate about whether faith affiliation is a hindrance or help in our space. We anticipate this discussion continuing for the next decade, when it will be decided by leading-edge Gen-Xers who will vote with their dollars when moving into a community.