||But who, how, how much and why, exactly?
When Doubletake magazine, a beautiful publication of photography and literature, asks for a donation for a special edition, I don’t hesitate. When an artist friend whose work I love is creating a special project, I’m glad to contribute. I trust the Mennonite relief organization to use my money wisely——I know they won’t fritter it away on running the office, and they will respect the people who’ve invited them to come dig a well or whatever. I don’t think twice about sending money to Lifeline Ministries, a shelter for homeless women and children in California, founded by my friend Marie. And I feel compelled to support the work of Friends for a Non-Violent World where I’ve learned to know numerous people who are on the Alternatives to Violence Project journey. In a way, though, this way of giving is too haphazard. And is somehow not enough.
My mother says about money: “Share some, save some, spend some,” in that order. Her wisdom reflects the biblical mandate to give 10 percent of one’s earnings to God. I recall learning that you’re supposed to take 10 percent off the top right away when you get paid (or get birthday money) and give it to the church so they can do some good with it. My mother’s wisdom reflects the principles of many world religions. Charitable giving or sharing of goods in one form or another is part of the practice of all religions.
In high school, I was very idealistic; I owned few clothes because I thought that somehow if I had less, people who needed it would have more. It was the idea of “Live simply so that others may simply live,” a phrase I discovered much later in my life.
Deep down in some unconscious way, I believe that if all the institutions and governments of the world were just (fair and equitable, etc.) and people lived community-based lives (taking care of each other according to their needs), charity wouldn’t be necessary; sharing would be woven into life in a very natural way.
But in the meantime, with the world as it is, sharing has to be done in an intentional fashion. That’s where tithing comes in. The idea of setting aside money to share before you save or spend is super intentional. You can use that 10 percent to “pick up the pieces” and alleviate suffering or you can support causes that work to clean up our injustices and hopefully avoid suffering. Or you can help bring beauty into the world.
Sharing is a gesture of faith. Sharing expresses thankfulness for life, and, in a weird way, forgiveness for the greed that divides us. It’s one of those things you do on principle, for no practical reason——because obviously charity is futile; you can’t fix the world.
I used to dream of the day when I would earn enough so that tithing would not be a hardship; then, so that tithing would not be a sacrifice. I think I’m there. I admit, when it was a hardship and a sacrifice, I didn’t tithe, nor did I give my tithe in the form of volunteer time as many low-income people do.
Unfortunately when you make enough to tithe comfortably, you’re also paying income taxes that go to military spending. That’s the down side. On the other hand, you lower your amount of taxed income by charitable giving, depending on the recipients—The IRS has certain definitions of what charitable giving is.
Now that I organize and manage my money I have to figure out what constitutes charitable or socially conscious giving, according to myself, and not the IRS or the church. If I take a friend out to dinner who is an emotional basket case, does that count? If I buy something I don’t want or need in order to support someone’s fledgling business, does that count? Does charitable giving include giving gifts to people—friends, family or strangers——that you feel friendly toward, sort of like “The Millionaire” did?
It’s poetic to have a little fund to allocate. And it makes you feel like you have some control over your life.
My friend Marie, who used to work as a financial counselor and financial advisor during the ’70s and early ’80s, says, “When you start to plan your money you really prioritize——you find out what and who are really important to you.” It’s a very spiritual exercise.
While I doubt that there exists a human begin who has never spontaneously given a gift to someone else, it is not that common to plan for giving. In her experience, Marie said only about 10 percent of her clients started out their financial planning with the idea of including a category for charitable giving. She said that churchgoers, of course, always included charitable giving in their plans.
It was her practice to encourage people, even those with very few resources, to set up some kind of giving plan, even something like “one dollar a month to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals” (if they had a special love for animals, for example). She said it gave people a new sense of purpose. It helped them to “grow in their dreams of what they can do.” Sometimes they got so “into it” that they would stick to their budget better so they could give more or they would earn more so they could give more.
Katri, a friend who has just started working as a financial advisor, says people generally don’t think about giving in the summer time. They want to spend and spend. Usually they are inspired, spontaneously, to give during the holidays. The people who plan are those who are getting their estates together and deciding upon their legacy.
Marie says people have charitable giving plans for three main reasons: they believe they will receive extra special blessings ( they will be rewarded) ; to feel better (less guilty maybe) and to give back out of a sense of gratefulness.
Personally, I don’t see that the motive matters as far as the result goes. If you send money to help tornado victims or if you go help clean up after a tornado because you are expecting a reward, in this life or the next, your generosity isn’t sullied or negated or impure—— you’ve still helped the tornado victims. Actually, many organizations and institutions encourage giving by offering financial blessings——in this life. A gift annuity pays a fixed amount annually in return for a contribution. Charitable trusts provide tax benefits. I suggested to Katri that pure altruism is pretty rare and she agreed.
Giving out of guilt or obligation doesn’t hurt the gift either. If you give food to the food shelf because you feel guilty for having so much, you’ll still help feed someone. Food for the Poor sent me a pewter cross on a chain, a really lovely piece of jewelry which I’ve worn almost every day since I got it. Now I feel obligated to contribute. And it really wouldn’t hurt, would it? The motive only matters as far as the personal growth of the individual is concerned.
Marie says the purest form of giving is out of gratefulness. My friend Rhoda as a single mom struggled for many years to put food on the table. Now she always gives to people who struggle like she did. She is thankful for what she has.
I used to think that I worried about giving money away because I was afraid I would be caught short when it came time to pay bills and so on. But now that I have my little fund and that’s not an issue, I still worry, and it’s because I’m afraid I’ll be pouring money down the drain. What if I give somebody a beautiful shirt and they use it to wash their car?
Well, again, while I realize you can’t fix the world with charitable contributions (you can’t even fix it by giving your whole life energy to social justice causes), you really can pay attention to who the recipients of your donations are. Certain organizations are more reliable than others——I was horrified to read a quote from Sojourners magazine that “Each year $16 billion is embezzled from the Christian church worldwide, while $15 billion is given to foreign missions.”
So check them out. While my curiosity is always piqued by envelopes with no return address, or ones that promise a gift inside, or a petition to sign, or ones with a famous return address (like Christopher Reeve or the Dalai Lama), I’m always attracted to an organization like the International Rescue Committee who says 92 percent of donations go to the cause and only 8 percent to administration, for example. Many requests tell you to check out their fiscal reports, usually at their state’s attorney general’s office. . You can also consult the American Institute of Philanthropy, or publications like The Council of Better Business Bureaus’ “Give Wisely,” The National Charities Information Bureau’s “Wise Giving Guide,” or finance publications like Money, Smart Money and Worth.
After that, it’s important to just let go, let the spirit lead, and see yourself as part of the huge matrix of humanity that stays connected by caring about one another.