Mending the Nets of Social Impact Philanthropy

“To give away money is an easy matter and in any man’s power. But to decide to whom to give it and how large and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man power nor an easy matter.” (Aristotle)


Anglers are common. Fishers of men are rare. Although the pursuit of a bountiful catch has been used to define the primary focus of ecclesial leadership, “net casting” may also be employed to describe the social impact generated by the philanthropic deployment of institutional systems, managerial metrics, and financial resources. Net casting should be extended beyond the domain of the Church, as it is more than merely a missionary tactic found in the tackle box of ordained clergy seeking to increase their respective ecclesial memberships. On the contrary, its logic should also be used to delineate the strategic use of the administrative nets of all philanthropic entities resolved on retaining their aspirational lumens.

A close review of research data concerning the current reservoirs of philanthropic net casting, however, should alarm both religious as well as nonprofit leaders.  Apart from exposing a dangerous decline in membership, numerous studies reveal an increasing level of disapproval with the lack of social interest/impact by established faith-based and philanthropic organizations. More disturbing are anecdotal focus group comments that reference the tragic belief that, if many local religious and nonprofit entities were to vanish, there would be no “negative impact” on the greater social context!  When asked, one-fifth of adults (21%) did not venture a single response as to how churches could contribute positively to their communities. Is this, in fact, a true and honest assessment? Are these vital institutions in danger of losing their societal savor?

According to the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) the fastest growing religious groups in America are those that regard themselves as spiritual yet not religious!  The survey data also indicates that of the 15% of Americans (30 million) who do consider themselves spiritual, the same group simultaneously does not identify with any formal religious organization.  What is especially troubling is that this cohort has more than doubled in the last two decades!

A recent Gallup Survey of American Religious Attitudes concurs with ARIS by indicating that nearly 30% of respondents believe that religion is “out of date” or has “no answers for today’s problems.”  As a result, the LifeWay Research Group reports that 72% of young adults (18-29 years) say that they are “more spiritual than religious.” The 2010 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life likewise concludes that young adults today are “significantly more likely than those in early generations to say that do not identify with any religious group.” Finally, research data from the more recent Barna Group Study (2011) indicates that 6 in 10 young adults will leave the church permanently or for an extended period starting at age 15!

As a result of the aforementioned conditions, it should come as no surprise to learn that the percentage of those who are reducing their financial contributions to religious institutions is 30%. The proportion of Americans who report a decline in giving to nonprofits has also dropped to nearly 40%!  Apart from lower-income families, donors most likely to reduce church-related giving are Boomers (ages 46-64) and those who are only moderately involved with their local church community.

Among those whose stewardship to religious institutions has declined, 24% have stopped all giving to churches, 17% have decreased their giving by 20% or less, 7% have lessened their donations by 20% to 45%, 17% have reduced their giving by half, and 12% have decreased their giving by more than 50%. The Barna Group 2011 nationwide study reveals that only 53% of adults believe the presence of a church is “very positive” for their community. As expected, the groups with the most favorable view of the church are Elders (66-years and older), married adults, residents of the South, and political conservatives. Tragically, the cohorts least likely to hold a positive view of the Church are the ones that arguably need it the most – Mosaics (ages 18 to 27), never-married adults, and the unchurched.

What is triggering this most dangerous decline in attitudinal and financial support of various religious and nonprofit entities? Religious leaders who understand the arrangement of their philanthropic responsibilities in net-casting terms may consider employing the tenants of Social Impact Philanthropy (SIP) to both explain and counter the ever-increasing secular tempest currently raging in America’s societal seascape.  Rather than repeatedly outlining future areas of administrative and pastoral foci that never receive appropriate funding, oversight, or effective implementation, religious and nonprofit philanthropic leaders should more seriously concentrate on the intended and actual impact of their respective visions. Consequently, before current practices can be evaluated and the elements of a new altruistic model can be developed, a brief review of the scriptural image of net casting might prove beneficial.

The fourth chapter of the Gospel of Saint Matthew focuses on the “discipling” of two sets of brothers, Peter and Andrew, and James and John (Matthew 4:18-23).  The scriptural pericope details the manner in which Jesus transitioned these four fishermen into social “net casters.” Apart from prayer, a careful examination of the Biblical composite concerning this incident reveals three additional strategic skills that should be included in the administrative toolbox of every contemporary philanthropic leader, namely: (a) casting, (b) dragging, and (c) mending.

All four evangelists provide distinct yet important details concerning the process used by Jesus to summon His first four adherents. Saint Matthew notes that at the time of their “call,” each set of brothers was engaged in one of three phases of their net-based occupation.  First Century fishermen were experts in casting, dragging, and mending their nets.  At the time of their assemblage, Peter and his brother Andrew were “casting” (Mat. 4:18), while James and John were busy “mending” their respective nets (Mat. 4:21). It is significant that neither set of brothers was enjoying a successful netting of fish. Of the four evangelists, only Luke provides a parallel accounting that includes a miraculous catch (Luke 5:1-11).

Unlike Matthew, Saint Luke provides his readers with additional background information concerning the specific leadership summons of Peter and Andrew. The brothers had recently returned from an unsuccessful fishing expedition and were “washing their nets” (Luke 5:2). Amazingly, at Jesus’ direction the weary anglers un-stowed their tackle and returned to the lake for another attempt. It was only after he experienced a miraculous catch of fish that Peter acknowledged the divine authority of Jesus. Only when he had personally witnessed the visionary power of the simple Galilean carpenter was the first of Jesus’ disciples willing to abandon “everything” to become one of Jesus’ core spiritual anglers (Luke 5:11).

While remaining loyal to their core imperatives, philanthropic leaders like Peter must strive to evaluate the impact of their net casting! While a humble and prayerful disposition is critical, such contemporary anglers must also learn to skillfully deploy the methods of their respective philanthropic mission. Conceding the higher directive of their vision, the current suspicion expressed towards religious and philanthropic institutions requires leaders who are willing to discover and mend areas of their respective netting that demand mending.  In short, society needs dedicated leaders with discerning administrative acumen characterized by honest on-going evaluation and transparency.

First Century casting nets were commonly circular, bell-shaped tackle, skillfully thrown over-the-shoulder by anglers standing on the shore or boat. These led-weighted nets would sink swiftly and thereby enclose whatever was below them. Unfortunately, casting nets were flimsy and would tear for a variety of reasons. Stretched and weakened after a large haul of fish, the nets would often tear after being dragged over undetected sharp materials.  Irretrievably snagged on underwater objects, casting nets were eventually discarded.  As a consequence, anglers were regularly washing and re-sewing the knots that endowed their nets with integrity and strength.

Contemporary net casters would do well to consider the theological and administrative systems by which they hope to strengthen and sustain their respective leadership responsibilities. Religious and philanthropic leaders are often casting the nets of their respective knowledge, talents and resources into the dangerous ocean of ever-changing social contexts. Like nets, their visions will often be dragged into deep and strong currents frequently filled with unseen dangerous obstacles. What the current polling data and negative statistical calculations have demonstrated is that, irrespective of a leader’s level of confidence, the nets of philanthropic service will indeed become frayed, torn, and/or immovably snagged by sharp societal complications. If they are to remain effective, they will certainly need constant mending!

Fishermen are renown for their patience, technical skill, and knowledge of local waters. Church and nonprofit leaders should be similarly conversant about the content of their institution’s primary mission and erudite concerning the societal context of their respective concentrations. However, while knowledge-based expertise is indispensable, contemporary philanthropic leaders should also be renown for expertly pursuing the vision of their accountabilities. Knowledge is an indispensable component of such a leader’s expertise. Consequently, like their more common counter-parts, philanthropic anglers should take the time to read and study leadership journals, management books, and statistical reports.  They should acquaint themselves with the ever-changing contexts of societal threats and opportunities. Finally, faithful spiritual anglers should become familiar with the psychological characteristics of their constituents. Only in this fashion can our contemporary leadership methods more suitably match the timeless mission of their institutional messages, and, like nets, more effectively be cast into the deep!

Addressing poverty and helping the poor was the most common response reported by 29% of national survey respondents as to how church and non-profit organizations can more positively influence their communities. This includes helping the needy, poor and disabled, distributing food and clothing, and assisting the homeless. Church and other philanthropic entities would contribute positively by engaging in common ministry activities (12%); serving youth, families and the elderly (13%); and cultivating biblical values in individuals and communities (14%).

Additionally, one in ten Americans (10%) believe that religious institutions should assist those in recovery, providing counseling, support groups, and other forms of guidance and assistance. One out of 14 adults (7%) suggest that the church should assist the unemployed get jobs by providing financial assistance, business counseling, and literacy classes.

Social Impact Philanthropy promises church and non-profit institutions exciting possibilities for advancing many of the aforementioned recommendations thereby increasing the effectiveness of their public influence. Social impact strategies are a subset of the financial support model commonly referred to as Venture Philanthropy. Analogous to venture capital investment practices, Venture Philanthropy is a high engagement, partnership approach that provides a blend of performance-based capital and professional services to organizations in need of expanding their social impact. The following is a list of seven drivers that may guide future thinking and implementation of Social Impact Philanthropy in and/or outside local church and nonprofit organizations.

  1. The continued increase of disenfranchised individuals capable of funding their own ministry interests.
  2. The increase in Venture Philanthropy by entrepreneurial Christians.
  3. The decrease of reactive/crisis stewardship giving to religious and non-profit institutions.
  4. The increase in specialized religious/non-profit management consulting firms.
  5. The creation of local, national and global foundations that will create resources pools through donor advised funds, area of interest funds, and non-restricted funds for community ministry needs.
  6. The creation of transnational networks of major Church and non-profit funders (individuals, families and foundations) for the exchange of ideas and the expansion of global capital for social philanthropic impact.

The future financial seascape of church and non-profit institutions in America will include an important shift in theological thinking concerning administrative, financial and philanthropic issues. If such a mission/vision refinement is not nurtured, an increase in para-church foundations that focus on providing resources for social ministries outside the local community will occur. Rather than generate endowments and subsidies for internal denominational programs, the primary objective of these funding/friending networks will be to effectively impact social problems.

Church and nonprofit entities that display the most effective responses to membership and financial downturns are those that are willing to honestly evaluate the impact of their respective enterprise. Leaders of such organizations are using the decline in religious and philanthropic affiliation as opportunities to proactively invest in new and creative strategies that promise to nurture new relationships and win back the disenfranchised.  In this manner, contemporary net-casters are, like their 1st Century counterparts, enhancing the tangible impact of their organization’s primary mission by mending the frayed knots of their respective philanthropic nets.



Dr. Frank Marangos is CEO and Founder of OINOS Educational Consulting. He received a Doctors Degree in Adult Education (Ed.D.) from NOVA Southeastern University (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) and a Doctorate in Ministry and Childhood Education (D.Min.) from Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX). He is also a Certified Charitable Estate Planner (FCEP).

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