Faith and Charity

Photo by  Billy Pasco

Photo by Billy Pasco

Depending on the part of the country in which you live, it may not be obvious how central religious giving is to the philanthropic sector in the United States. Donors in parts of the country that are more religious, tend to give more, give more widely, and volunteer more. For example, Southern donors give roughly 5.2 percent of their discretionary income to charity—religious and secular—compared with donors in the Northeast, who give 4.0 percent. Churches, temples, mosques, and their non-profit supporting agencies deploy billions annually to aid people all around the world. 

The value of generosity is a concept that has deep roots in many faiths. However, given that next month hosts the high holidays of the three Abrahamic faiths (Ramadan in Islam, Passover in Judaism, and Easter in Christianity), this blog post explores the role of giving in each of them.

For Muslims, giving is one of theFive Pillars of Islam. “Zakat” (meaning to grow in purity and is focused on charity or alms-giving) is an annual payment of 2.5 percent of one’s assets, considered by many as the minimum obligation of their religious giving. A majority of Muslims worldwide make their annual zakat payments as a central faith practice.

Above and beyond the required zakat, many Muslims make additional gifts (referred to broadly as “sadaqa”). Interestingly, the word shares the same root as the Jewish “tzedakah,” meaning justice. Muslim giving also focuses primarily on the poor. Of course, charitable giving is not just for the rich. For those with no money to give, the Prophet Muhammad considered even the simple act of smiling to be charity, a gift to another.

In Judaism, the Hebrew Scriptures refer to “tzedakah,” literally meaning justice. Tzedakah is considered a commandment and a moral obligation that all Jews should follow. The commitment to justice places a priority on their giving to help the poor. Beyond giving just time and money, rabbis even spoke of “gemilut chasadim,” literally meaning loving-kindness, or focusing on right relationship with one another as the prerogative of religious giving. 

Even more broadly, an ancient Jewish phrase, “tikkun olam,” meaning to repair or heal the world, has been adopted by many religious and secular causes. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and George W. Bush all spoke to a vision of “tikkun olam” in their speeches. 

Similarly, Christianity has considered giving a key religious practice. Many Christians still look to the Hebrew Bible and the tithe, which involves giving one-tenth of an individual’s income, as God’s commandment. In the New Testament, Jesus not only spoke of giving a tithe but challenged followers to give far beyond it. 

For instance, in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus challenged the rich, young ruler to sell all his possessions. Pursuing those values, a long monastic tradition has seen men and women taking vows of poverty to give themselves to the work of their faith. Today, while the tithe might not be practiced by a majority of Christians, most understand the practice of giving as a central part of their faith, especially in December as a mark to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

When I think of my own background, I reflexively thought that our Catholic family didn’t have much connection to philanthropy. But upon reflection, I realize that we embodied the consistency, generosity, and intentionality that I counsel in my clients. I remember so clearly that moment every Sunday at Mass when the ushers would walk up and down the aisles with a basket at the end of a long pole that reached in front of every sitting congregant, quietly imploring them to make a deposit. Every week, my father’s jacket pocket contained an envelope, pre-filled out by the Parish, with a contribution inside that he dutifully added to the collection. My sister and I, anticipating this moment in the Mass, pestered our parents for loose change, or even sometimes a bill, to drop in when the basket passed in front of us. In that moment just after making my contribution, I felt grown-up, a part of something, and proud to be joining others in giving. 

Those childhood feelings still inform how I give today, and I am not alone. Among Americans who give to any cause, 55 percent claim religious values as an important motivator for giving. The Discovery Process at Phila probes deeply into your values and how they inform your giving. And in this work, religion is not ignored. Regardless of the basis of your faith, most who grew up in a religious environment can speak to how the rituals, rules, and expectations have left their mark—for good or for ill. This exploration helps our clients reflect with intention and authenticity on what exactly informs the “why” of their giving. 

Instead of simply giving as part of a routine, it is worthwhile to explore the role of faith and values in your philanthropy. Doing so can provide insight into, among other things, the type of organizations you might support, your expectations around impact, and how or if you decide to become more involved with their work. And it is worth remembering too that including your children in your giving ritual, no matter how simple, lays good seeds for a robust philanthropic future.

Having a greater understanding for and appreciation of the charitable mandate in so many faiths, we might see that we have more in common with each other than we might realize. 


This post references statistics from The Chronicle of Philanthropy and uses descriptions of religions giving practices from The Conversation under the Creative Commons license.