26 January 2015

how giving are we?

Michael recently asked me, "What's the difference between tithing and almsgiving?" I figured by the look in his eye that he knew the answer. Being Jesuit-educated, I was a bit embarrassed to not know the answer. "Um, it's kind of the same thing? Where we're supposed to give 10% of what we earn to charity?" He replied, "Well, that's not entirely correct."

And by answering incorrectly, I had proven the author of "The Limits of Philanthropy," an article we recently highlighted in our Reading Rainbow post, right. So what is the difference? And should you care? And why am I talking about this when we live in Tanzania?

Let me give this a shot.

Turns out tithing and almsgiving are not the same thing. This happens to be the answer most Americans give, and it shows in the way we financially give to organizations and institutions of our choice.

So What's Tithing?

Tithing is a contribution given to a religious organization or a government. The word, tithe, comes from Old English, which means "one-tenth." Christians inherited the one-tenth concept from Judaism, when Orthodox Jews were asked to give one-tenth of their income back to their synagogues. In the New Testament, there's no hard and fast rule as to what amount Christians are supposed to give back to their churches. (And don't let anyone tell you otherwise!) We are asked to give to our churches, in any amount we deem fit. That's our tithe.

How About Almsgiving?

Then, there's almsgiving. Almsgiving is a big thing for us Catholics, and I would assume, for Christians and lots of religions the world over. Almsgiving is giving specifically to the poor. During Lent, the Catholic Church asks us to make almsgiving a theme of our Lenten celebration, stretching ourselves to give more than we normally would. But almsgiving is not limited to Lent. It's a year-round spiritual practice we're called to follow.

When we look at the statistics to examine how Americans give to charities, the heed to give alms is a little, well, depressing.

Don't get me wrong, we are pretty good at giving. As "The Limits of Philanthropy" cites, Americans give more in private funds than citizens of any other developed nation. While that may be something we can be proud of, it's important to take a look at where all of that money is going.

Can I Do This Tithing Thing and Almsgiving Thing at the Same Time?

Statistics show that we give the biggest chunk of our change to religious institutions, or 31% of overall giving, according to the most recent annual report done by Giving USA. Of that thirty-one percent, only five percent goes to activities we could define as almsgiving. The other 95% of what we give to our religious organizations goes to, well, anything else that religious leaders want.

So giving to the church and giving to the poor cannot be done at the same time. We need to reach outside of our religious organizations if we want to heed the call to give alms.

our church in tanzania. almsgiving doesn't really happen here.

Okay, check. So I think I'm understanding the difference between tithing and almsgiving. Tithing is what I give to my church/synagogue/organization-where-I-find-God and almsgiving is giving to the poor, whether that be in my own backyard or internationally. That means giving to my super wealthy alma mater (even though, Boston College, you know I love you dearly), my favorite ballet company, or the I Heart Dogs Association (which, yes, I made up and no, I would never give to) does not count as tithing and certainly does not count as almsgiving.

Yet regardless of where I give my money, since I pay taxes in the good ol' U.S. of A., I get the same charitable tax deduction.

A New Look at the Charitable Tax Deduction

The charitable tax deduction means that when we give in the United States, we get something in return. When we give to higher education institutions like Boston College, we can expect something back. Even when we give alms, when we place money in the hands of the poor, we should get something in return.


I honestly had never thought of the charitable tax deduction in this way until I read "The Limits of Philanthropy." And I'm not going to get into the political ramifications of the tax deduction or who you should vote for or yada yada yada.

I'm just asking the question: Are we truly giving alms when we get something in return?

Back in the day, Jesus said, "So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing."

I know Bible verses in blog posts are a scary thing, usually conveying the author's desire to be preachy and righteous. I really don't mean to be that way. It's just that, this week, I've been spending time thinking about my giving, our giving, as an American culture, and how freely given (or how not so freely given) our charity is. 

For those in the highest economic class in the U.S., donors receive up to 40 cents back in tax benefits for every dollar they give. So forty percent of what they give comes back to them. Is that charity? Is that giving? 

How Can We Give with Dignity?

In a post Michael wrote back in September, he mentioned that living in Tanzania has given us new perspective on charity. Now, we see the faces of those who receive our money. We know their needs and desires. We know how much it costs to get by in this country and how many still struggle to do just that. 

Giving charitably in Tanzania has asked more of me, as the giver, than I was ever asked in the U.S. Since there seems to be less accountability for nonprofit organizations here, we've had to be a lot more knowledgeable, careful, and involved in an organization when we give. 

This is not to say I wish it was easier. In fact, I prefer our charitable giving in Tanzania - where we're called to meet with the poor, to know their names, and to take stock of how much our money does. It's not easy, since talking about money is awkward for us Americans. It's taken some getting used to. But ultimately, by getting to know those to whom I give and investing in their lives, I think we afford each other a certain dignity as the giver and the receiver. 

Let's take a minute (a few weeks before Lent, for us Catholics) to think about our giving. How can we give freely, without asking for anything in return, while still affording everyone, the poor and the rich, the dignity we all deserve?


  1. Small quibble - I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say that the charitable tax deduction is really "getting something back." As I understand it, the charitable tax deduction means that you simply aren't being taxed on income that you give away. So if you make $110,000 and you give $10,000 away, the government only taxes you as if you made $100,000. You're still paying the same tax on all the money you keep. It doesn't too hypocritical...

    1. Hey Michael, thanks for your comment! It's true what you've said. Though the charitable tax deduction has some interesting implications when looked at on a large-scale. First, when we use the charitable tax deduction, we essentially take away money that would otherwise go to the government and put it into a charity of our choice. This reduces funding of much needed social services programs operated by the government. For the richest Americans, this equates to a tax reduction of 40 cents for every dollar given to charities. In total, the government loses about $52 billion in revenue due to this deduction. Now, I'm definitely not a fan of everything the government spends our money on, but I hate to see social services programs cut as a result. Secondly, it shifts the balance of power from those democratically elected to make decisions about our country to individual, wealthy donors. Lastly, it doesn't sit well with me that if I give money to Boston College's football team (who, let's be honest, doesn't need my money) and to a Dallas soup kitchen, the tax deduction is the same. In my opinion, our legal definition of charity is a bit skewed.

      The figures I used here are from the article I cited at the beginning of the post. Obviously, it's got me thinking! :) Hope you are well!

  2. Well, I wouldn’t really have thought about comparing almsgiving with tithing and that being said, it seems interesting to know that the Catholics stand from a different perspective as Jews or rather Orthodox believing individuals. Nonetheless, it seems like both are equally important and should be practiced in the same wavelength. However, the differential perspective highlighted in this context makes me think that one may replace the other depending on the context.

    Paula Robinson @ Canada Gives


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