Instead of checks and cash donations, churches and other charities are increasingly seeing their coffers filled with the currency of the Information Age--stocks of highflying technology companies.
The surge in stock donations has occurred as many more households have come to own stock and have become wealthier as a result of the long bull market. Beneficiaries of the nation's high-tech boom have been leading the stock-giving. But as stocks are being issued more widely to workers and increasingly used as barter or payment for services, their usage is spreading to religious institutions.
At some churches and charities, soaring stock contributions have significantly boosted their overall budgets, helping to establish scholarships, build new halls of worship and enhance programs.
"I've never seen so many people--and so many young people at that--give away so much," said Russ Williams of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter in Newport Beach, which, like other brokerages, has processed a burgeoning number of stock transfers from churchgoing clients.
Religious organizations say that upon receiving stock donations, they almost always cash out immediately, electing not to play the market.
But delays in transferring shares from the giver's account can sometimes result in big gains or losses for the receiving charity. And in some cases, a church may hold a stock donation, hoping the share price will rise.
Officials at First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles said that in August they received shares of Qwest Communications, then having a market value of about $15,000. The anonymous donor asked only that it be used for a scholarship program.
So First AME Church withdrew money from its general fund to set up the scholarship, but held on to the Qwest shares, which have since nearly doubled in value.
The Rev. Steve Johnson, the church's chief financial officer, said he was a bit nervous about holding the shares. But he also said, "It's wise to have that money work for you."
Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills said stock donations at her temple surged more than 25% last year. "It's an easy way to give," she said, "and it has good tax implications."
She should know. The rabbi personally donated stock to the temple for the first time in 1998 and again at the end of last year. She declined to say how much, or discuss details of the synagogue's budget.
Certainly the tax advantages are very enticing: Donating stock means no capital gains taxes and a deduction to boot for the giver. And the churches don't pay capital gains either.
"We're trying to get more people to do it because of the [tax] benefits," said Mohammed Qureshi, administrator of the Islamic Center of Los Angeles.
No one tracks total stock gifts to charities nationwide, but at many churches those contributions are clearly outpacing the increase in overall donations. Nationwide, individual donations to charities reached a record $175 billion in 1998, a 9% increase from the previous year, says the American Assn. of Fund-Raising Counsel Trust for Philanthropy.
The increase was fueled partly by the booming stock market, which has been a driving force in the nation's long economic growth. "People who feel wealthy are more inclined to share," said Bruce Smith, an economist with the state Finance Department. "And there are more people who feel wealthy--and are wealthy--because of the stock market."
But even as the practice of donating stocks is gaining popularity, many congregation members remain reluctant. Some don't see a need to break their long tradition of writing checks. Others say they prefer the convenience of donating cash, rather than arranging stock contributions through their brokers. And still others feel uncomfortable with the notion of stock donations collected by churches.
"Some people feel that by accepting pledges in stock, the church is trying to solicit people to give more than they normally would give in cash," said Cort Van Rensselaer, treasurer of the Valley Presbyterian Church in Portola Valley, near Palo Alto.
"Of course, we're not doing that," he added. "We're just trying to stay flexible and keep up with the times."
As some theologians see it, the move toward giving stocks instead of cash represents a fundamental break with religious tradition in America. That's not to say that giving stock gifts doesn't fulfill the general spirit of charity. But the practice, they say, is more akin to what occurred in medieval Europe among the land holders.
"When land was the equivalent of stock, you gave monks land--and the revenues from it--instead of cash," said Andrew Brown, author of "The Darwin Wars" and an expert in religious trends. "It's a pattern most common during periods when you have seriously rich people."