Following is Part 1 of a special Giving 2.0 blog series on Expressing the Divine, highlighting the intersection of religion and giving. My hope is that the ideas, resources, knowledge and tools presented on my website will inspire, educate and empower your philanthropic journey. This blog series aims to provide actionable ways to connect your giving and your spirituality.
“Blessed is the influence of one true, loving human soul to another.”
– George Eliot
Countless forces inspire giving—the public library that showed you a new world in your childhood; the scholarship that enabled you or a relative to attend college; the family member who survived her battle with breast cancer. These are the personal, tangible reasons that compel us to act—to give to something greater than ourselves and touch other lives just as our own has been touched. However, the greatest power behind American giving is an intangible one: a divine influence–our religion.
Last year, religious organizations, received more than $100 billion in donations, representing an estimated 35 percent of all US giving. And some 91 percent of all religious people give. Donations to evangelical groups grew almost 6 percent last year to more than $9 billion, according to a recent study by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, and groups that allow donors to sponsor a child overseas saw contributions grow by over 24 percent. (When donating to these types of organizations, always check what percentage of your dollars go towards fundraising vs. directly to a child.)
None of this is surprising, given the role that faith plays in many of our lives and the fact that for all world religions, taking care of fellow humans is a core tenet of the faith. Religion is a complex and often contradictory force in our world. It fosters hope and comfort but also doubt and guilt. It creates both community and exclusion. It brings societies together around shared belief and tears them apart through war. However, what unites the faithful, whatever their religion, is the unshakeable force of generosity.
In fact, charity lies at the heart of most religions. It appears in many sacred texts. The Bible says: “There will always be poor people, therefore you need to be generous to them” (Deuteronomy 15:11); and “In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
In Judaism, “tzedakah” is the Hebrew equivalent of charitable acts, defined as “giving aid, assistance and money to the poor and needy or to other worthy causes.” Unlike the word “charity,” which suggests benevolence and generosity, “tzedakah” derives from the Hebrew “Tzadei-Dalet-Qof,” meaning justice, righteousness, or fairness. Yet, as in many faiths, Jewish teaching stresses the importance of sharing blessings: the Torah reads: “Deeds of giving are the very foundations of the world.”
For Hindus, hospitality and charitable giving are core tenets of the faith, with Hindu scripture requiring a person to walk outdoors before every meal and declare: “Is anyone hungry? Please come to take your meal!” Only then can the family eat. Hindu faith has at its heart the concepts of “dana” (giving and philanthropy) and “paraspara bhavana” (mutual regard and service). “You came into this world with fists closed and you go away with open palms,” wrote Kabir (c1398-1470), one of the great Hindu mystics. “So even while living stretch your hand open and give liberally.”
Buddhists espouse similar philosophies, but hold that the intentions behind giving are as important as the gift itself. The Buddha, who teaches that those who give should do so with no expectation of being rewarded or receiving benefits of any kind, once said: “If you knew what I know about dana [generosity], you would not let one meal go by without sharing it.”
Meanwhile, the Koran tells us: “Those who are generous by day and by night, both in secret and openly, will be rewarded by God. They have nothing to fear or regret.” Islam encourages an action called “salaat,” (charity to the organization or individuals of one’s choosing) and Muslims practice “zakat,” one of five core tenets of the faith in which a yearly percentage (usually 2.5 percent) “tax” of all monetary assets is given to charity.
Regardless of what we believe, how we found our faith, or to which religious community we belong, giving unites us. We may agree or disagree on the details. In some parts of the world, we may even lack the freedom to practice our religion. But we can all express ourselves through our generosity to others—whether through an hour of our time, a meal from our table, or a gift of money. In fact, the one value that we can all share, whatever our faith, is that giving to others should be a driving force of a life greatly lived.