A Renaissance Instrument to Support Nonprofits: The Sale of Private Chapels in Florentine Churches
By Jonathan K. Nelson and Richard J. Zeckhauser
The Governance of Not-for-Profit Organizations, ed. by Edward L. Glaeser (University of Chicago Press, 2003)
Introduction: Our paper considers the operation of a historic, non-American, religious-based nonproﬁt: the Roman Catholic Church. The most important nonproﬁt in Renaissance Florence, the Church had two clear objectives: to address the needs of the parishioners, and to build churches in order to propagate the faith.
To meet these objectives and to grow as an institution, the Church needed substantial private support from donors. It sold private chapels within churches to get such support, and these sales brought in signiﬁcant tie-in revenues from burials, funerals, and commissioned masses. The monies supported the construction, expansion, and renovation of churches, and the religious services celebrated in the chapels provided employment for many priests and members of religious orders. Those who provided ﬁnancial support enjoyed the satisfaction of contributing to noble and spiritual endeavors— but they also reaped considerable private beneﬁts, notably status, permanent recognition, and expectations of salvation.
The Church thus sold beneﬁts to donors to raise private funds, and transformed the private funds into public goods. This “transformation” of contributions from wealthy merchants and bankers involved the production of art. In Renaissance Florence, the Church played a major role in stimulating the visual arts, architecture, and music, although this was not the mission of this institution. (Support of the arts is often a role of modern nonproﬁts, but the history of the Church demonstrates how faith-based organizations can deliver public services in this area.)