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In Tough Times, Many Still Give Time and Money

As the recession deepened, more Americans volunteered their time to churches and other religious charities.

Almost four in 10 Americans say they volunteered at a church or other religious organization in the past 12 months, according to a USA TODAY-Gallup Poll.

In September 2008, three in 10 had volunteered with a religious charity.

The weak economy and rising unemployment did not keep Americans from donating money to their churches or other favorite charities. The national telephone poll of 1,053 adults, conducted Sept. 22-23, found that 53 percent of Americans gave money to a religious organization and 66 percent gave to other charities. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The percentage donating money was almost the same 12 months earlier, when 52 percent said they gave to religious groups and 65 percent said they gave to other charities.

Four out of 10 Americans say they volunteered time to a non-religious charity.

In the hierarchy of charities that donors are most loyal to, religious organizations are at the top, says Melissa Brown, associate director of research at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. When times are tough, people might scale back on the number of charities they give to, but they still give to their church or religious group.

Religious charities "have an extremely close relationship with donors," Brown says. On average, those who donate to religious charities give $1,858 a year, she says. Those who give to secular charities give an average $941 a year.

For most of his adult life, Tom Trabue, 69, of Nashville, has been donating time and money to a non-denominational Protestant ministry that his parents and grandparents were also members of. Even though his boat-making business has suffered, he still helps organize summer activities and gives money, although a little less than before.

"I think a lot of people turn to their faith when things are not good," he says. "In times like these, we need all the help we can get."

Rick Dunham of Dunham+Company, a consultant to religious charities, says almost all of his clients have seen an uptick in volunteers this year as more people are laid off and can't find work. They turn to volunteering, he says, because they have less money but more time.

"I think the motivation is not one of altruism," he says. "It's a part of their lifestyle. It's an expression of their faith."

He says people still donate money, but not as much.

Religious charities are seeing an increase in volunteerism among younger and older people. Thirty-six percent of those 18 to 29 say they volunteered with a religious organization in the past 12 months, compared with 23 percent a year earlier. Among people 65 and older, 38 percent say they donated time, compared with 31 percent last year.

Open Doors USA, a ministry that works to help Christians who are oppressed or persecuted around the world, has seen more volunteers, especially among the young. The group increased the number of college interns in its Santa Ana, Calif., office to nine from three last year.

"They can't find employment and they are looking to strengthen their resume," says Jane Huckaby, vice president for programs. "This gives them an opportunity to get involved with something that has meaning."

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