How Should You Give – Ask Linda

How should you give?  Ask Linda.  My friend Linda occasionally helps me with tasks around the house that I can never seem to get to.   Linda has had a hard life, working full-time for minimal wages and also taking care of her mother and another elderly man.  For almost 20 years Linda and I have talked about how dehumanizing it can be to be poor in America, to live from paycheck to paycheck without hope of ever getting ahead.  Yet when I pay Linda for her work, she often gives back part of the money, saying, “Here, give this to someone in your church who needs it.” 

It’s that time, isn’t it?  The vast majority of churches in our country are already planning for 2013.  Committees are hard at work assessing the current state of their ministries and setting goals and expected outcomes for next year.  I am not naïve enough to think that local church budgets are always built around well-thought-out ministry plans.  However, a naturally optimistic faith refuses to give up that hope.      

One of the primary responsibilities of a local church pastor is educating, encouraging, and inviting the congregation to practice joyful stewardship.  I believe that people are generous by nature, but the lures of living in 21st century America have a way of choking off that generosity in favor of excessive spending or selfish hoarding.  Most of us would be better off learning how to give from those who have less than we do. 

Linda’s benevolence is confirmed by a report recently released from The Chronicle of Philanthropy called How America Gives.  Analyzing charitable giving trends at the zip code level, the report chronicles who the most generous givers in our country are and where they live.  Consider these provocative findings using 2008 statistics.

·         People who earn less money give a greater percentage of their discretionary income to charity.  

o   Families earning $200,000 or more represent 11% of U.S. tax returns and 40% of charitable giving, but high income earners give a lesser percentage of their income. 

o   Families earning over $200,000 a year gave only 4.2% of discretionary income to charity, whereas families earning $50-$75,000 a year gave 7.6 % to charity. 

o   Likewise, rich neighborhoods donate much less to charity percentagewise than low income neighborhoods.

·         Wealthy people who live in isolated enclaves or lower population density areas give less than wealthy people who live in economically diverse metropolitan neighborhoods.

o   When wealthy people live in neighborhoods where 40% of the people earn $200,000 or more, they give just 2.8% of discretionary income to charity as opposed to 4.2% for the general population of those earning $200,000 or more. 

o   As wealth increases, people tend to become more isolated, insulated, and immune to human need, which results in limited engagement with people who have much less than they do. 

Paul Piff, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, echoes these findings after years of his own research on giving, “The more wealth you have, the more focused on your own self and your own needs you become, and the less attuned to the needs of other people you also become….  Simply reminding wealthy people of the diversity of needs that are out there is going to go a long way toward restoring the empathy or compassion deficit that we otherwise see.”  How should you give?  Ask Linda.

·         Religion makes a difference in charitable giving. 

People who live in areas where religion is a core value give more.  In addition, lower income donors tend to give more to religious organizations than high income donors. 

o   Two of the top nine states in charitable giving are Utah (10.6%) and Idaho, which have a high percentage of residents who are Mormons and strongly encourage tithing.  The other top 7 states are in the Bible Belt of the south. 

o   In contrast, New Hampshire, one of the least religious states in the country, has the lowest charitable giving rate at 2.5%.   

o   If religious charitable giving were excluded from this study and only giving to secular organizations was considered, the geography of generosity would look quite different.  New York State would go from 18th to 2nd, and Pennsylvania would go from 40th to 4th.   

·         How does your state or metropolitan area give? 

Check out

o   The highest charitable giving ZIP code in the U.S. is 10021 in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  This zip code contributed $478-million in 2008.

o   The ZIP code which gave the highest percentage in 2008 was 74103 in Tulsa, Okla., whose residents gave a generous 21.6% of their discretionary income. 

o   Nearly $1 in $8 given to charity in our country comes from California, whose residents donated more than $17.2 billion in 2008. 

Michigan ranks 13th out of 51 states (including Washington D.C) in charitable giving at 4.5% of discretionary income.  Of the 366 metropolitan areas in the U.S., my home of Grand Rapids ranks 115th with an average giving rate of 5.3%.

How should you give?  Ask Linda.  Linda is always looking to help people who have less than she has, but she soured on organized religion long ago.  She said, “My mother tolerated everything in the name of religion.  She would never confront my siblings with their inexcusable behavior and drug use and for scamming her out of her life’s savings.  And here I am, taking care of my mother now because no one else will.  I never had a chance to go to college, I hold down 3 jobs, and have no life. 

Where’s the church in all of this?  All they care about is taking care of themselves or offering handouts without accountability.  Giving money to the church is all well and good, but God calls all of us to be kind, compassionate, and wise, and I don’t often see that in church folks.”

            What does The Chronicle of Philanthropy report mean for the church as we prepare for commitment campaigns and budget-building?

  1. Resist making assumptions about who the most generous givers in your church are.  Who is most generous: the family that makes $1 million a year and gives $50,000 to the church or the family that makes $30,000 and gives $3,000 a year?  Remember the widow’s mite.
  2. Knowing that we rely on more well-off members to provide a good part of the church’s budget and that the average wealthy family in the U.S. gives only 4.2% of their income to charity, gently challenge all people in your church to step up to tithing. 
  3. Be aware that the church is one of the best places for middle and upper class families to be exposed to the poor.  How diverse is your congregation socioeconomically?  Are you intentional about finding ways for rich and poor to learn from each other?
  4. Use mission trips in and outside of the country as opportunities for children, youth, and adults to expand their borders and experience different ways of living, serving, and giving.
  5. Cultivate a holistic, year-round stewardship program of prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.  Statistics show that cities with generous givers also give more volunteer time.  The spillover effect means that donated money goes further. 
  6. Debunk the claim that secular giving is other-centered and therefore more altruistic than religious giving, which is self-centered.  In forming your church’s budget for next year, avoid the pitfall of focusing on institutional maintenance rather than mission and outreach.
  7. Inspire your congregation to give as a joyful response to God’s grace by telling the story in creative and compelling ways of how lives are being transformed through the ministries of your church.

In the thick of budgets, statistics, stewardship campaigns, planning, and a maze of church conference forms, all I can think of is Linda.  I suspect that we need Linda more than she needs us, for she is the expert on generosity.  In addition to being one of the most honest, perceptive, and pointed critics of the church (and rightly so), Linda gives way more proportionally than most church people, she is more sensitive to the needs of the poor, and her grace, hope, and perseverance put me to shame.

How should you give?  Ask Linda.