Tithing

Most people I know make sporadic charitable contributions.  Some of them support their own religious organization, others are more focused on major charities like the Cancer Society or Heart & Stroke, and still others concentrate their charitable giving on smaller charities with which they have a closer connection.

When I say sporadic, I mean that in many cases charitable donations are responsive to events, or to requests for funds such as fundraising campaigns.  How many people make regular donations for friends or family that participate in charity bike rides, walkathons (is that still a word?), charity hockey, basketball, or other tournaments, etc.?  Just as many, perhaps, benefit charities by attending charity galas and similar activities, or by participating in silent auctions, whether in person (back in the day) or online.  There are many ways we give to charity.

What is less common, perhaps, is regular planned giving, in which you fund charities on an ongoing monthly basis.  I believe more people should look at that option, setting up their own personal plan to benefit charities they believe add particular value to society.

That brings me to tithing.

Tithing is the practice of donating an amount (historically 10%) of your income periodically to charity. 

Many people think of tithing as an artifact of the Christian church, since regular tithing of 10% was a primary, sometimes even legally mandated, method of raising money for churches throughout Europe and later the world for centuries.  Some Christians, in various denominations, still practice tithing (Mennonites and Mormons being prominent examples), and most Christian groups still see it as a goal, if no longer a strict obligation.

What is less well known is that tithing, or similar expectations, is seen throughout many religions.  Christianity got tithing from Judaism, which in the orthodox tradition includes ma’aser kesafim, i.e. giving ten percent of one’s income to charity (including one’s synagogue).  This originates in the Torah (Old Testament), where Abraham promised one tenth of everything he acquired would be given to the benefit of God.  Many Orthodox Jews still give 10% to charity.

Islam has a similar practice, zakat, which can be variously a small percentage of one’s wealth each year, or a larger percentage, often 10%, of one’s income or production.  Ismaili Muslims call this dasond, also 10%, which basically goes to the Aga Khan Foundation for charitable works around the world.  Sikhism also has a 10% gifting of income expectation, called daswandh.

There are charitable traditions in most other religions as well, including some, like Buddhism, that make it a central tenet of the religion.  In those cases, however, there is less often an expectation of regular amounts, than there is an expectation of charitable living (sometimes called dana, which is living with generosity as a core personal principle).

Tithing in its historical form was normally an annual ritual, since it was often done in goods rather than money, and traveling to a central location to deliver your tithe could be a significant undertaking.  In today’s world of instant funds transfers, those who still tithe usually do so by regular monthly gifts of money. 

Canada Helps, for example, an excellent website that facilitates charitable giving to thousands of Canadian charities, has a function that allows you to schedule regular monthly payments to the charity or charities of your choice.  Canada Helps, itself a charity, takes a small fee to fund its operations, either paid by the charity or paid as an additional charitable donation by the donors.

All of this is a relatively long-winded way of getting to my point, which is that more people should tithe.

Now, before you get your shirt in a knot, I am not for a minute suggesting that you should set aside ten percent of your monthly income for charity.  If you can, great. (Particularly if you are a partner in a big law firm and make oodles of money.  For you, make it twenty percent.  But I digress…)

However, the ten percent expectation arose in a past era in which governments did not have as active a role in providing social services and assisting those in need.  Ancient tithing was a kind of taxation for social services.  Today, there may be less need for that.  (We could debate that at length, of course.)

But regular charitable giving doesn’t need to be ten percent of your income to be important.  You can start much smaller than that, and through the power of numbers make an impact. I know at least 100 people who could give $250 per month to charities and not really notice it very much.  If the people I know could give $300,000 per year (100x$250×12 months), and the people you know could do the same, and so on, the results could be (as Bernie Sanders might say) huge.

So this is a suggestion to the people I know who read my work.  Think about how much you could easily give to charity each month – $100, $250, $500, or whatever.  Divide the amount into five parts, and identify five charities that you would like to assist on a regular basis.  Set up, either on the charities’ own websites, or on Canada Helps, or even through your bank or your employer, a regular monthly withdrawal from your account for each of those charities, and then see how it impacts both your life, and those charities.

Two other things are important, if you are thinking about this.

First, charitable donations are tax deductible.  For most people, the impact is that the government pays about half of your charitable donation through a reduction in your income tax at the end of the year.  For example, if you donate $250 per month, or $3,000 over the year, your tax saving will be just under $1,500.  Not only that, but it comes all at once, sort of like planned savings.  The charities get to spend your full $3,000 throughout the year, but you get a lump sum in March or April that you can spend as you please.

Second, regular donations to a charity have a different impact from one-offs.  Part of it, obviously, is that fundraising costs money, so charities must spend 10-30% of your donations just to get them.  That reduces your impact.  More important, though, charities rely on regular donors to make efficient and ongoing financial commitments.  When they can count on money coming in regularly, they can hire staff to pursue worthwhile projects, and they can enter into research and other funding agreements over a period of time.  They can also get matching funds from foundations, governments, and the like that increase the impact of your money.

People who shift to mostly regular giving often find that it is a lot easier than they expect.  In fact, some have told me that, while they started small, they ended up increasing their monthly donation levels over time as they saw how little it impacted their lives, and how much it created value in the charities.

One other thing.  Just because you set up regular donations, doesn’t mean that you have to stop giving for your friends’ charity events.  That still adds value, and in any case it’s a lot of fun.  Who am I to suggest that you shouldn’t go to at least one gala each year?

The obligation to tithe 10% of your income to charities, or to your church, may now be long gone.  The value of setting aside some portion of what you earn to benefit others remains, and setting yourself up with a monthly giving program is a good way of achieving that value. 

  • Jay Shepherd, June 28, 2022
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Posted in Life Lessons, Politics, Social Change | Tagged , | 2 Comments