Christian Approaches to Charitable Giving: Is Religious Altruism Effective?

By Lindsey Faust

32% of the $258.51 billion Americans gave to charity in 2014 was allocated toward religious institutions or projects (National Philanthropic Trust, 2014). However, arguments have surfaced that charitable giving should focus on producing maximally effective action. For instance, emerging movement “effective altruism” incorporates utilitarian philosophy, business principles, and classic philanthropy to “[c]onsider all causes and actions, and then act in the way that brings about the greatest positive impact,” employing cost-benefit analysis and other methods to quantify the good done by a donation (What is Effective Altruism?, n.d.). By detailing the results of interviews with members of Christian faith-based groups, this research seeks to identify key principles that guide Christians’ giving practices and compares them with those of effective altruism. The work ultimately concludes that Christian giving prioritizes personal connection and in-church giving while effective altruism prioritizes more streamlined giving that is often less personal.

INTRODUCTION

Charitable giving has long been practiced by people of many religious and secular traditions. American individuals gave $258.51 billion to charity in 2014, with 32% of that total allocated toward religious institutions and projects (National Philanthropic Trust, 2014). Within the Christian community, specifically, charity is a key aspect of religious practice and obligation.

In recent years, advocates have called for increased attention to evaluating quality of charitable work, arguing that efficiency and effectiveness of charitable organizations should be a key consideration of donors (Barrett). From this call, a new philanthropic movement called effective altruism has emerged to provide metrics that dictate how “best” to execute a charitable gift. Using cost-benefit analysis, effective altruism (EA) pushes donors to consider a key question: “How can I make the biggest difference I can?” (MacAskill 2015). This data-heavy approach is mainly espoused by secular and humanist movements that prioritize empiricism and quantifiability in a charitable gift.

Because of the EA movement’s heavily empirical nature, it often conflicts with Christian motivations towards charitable giving, which find roots in Scripture and doctrine and prioritize a personal connection with the recipient of one’s gift over effectiveness of a gift. This research intends to investigate the tensions between these priorities and explore the ways in which they may coexist or be incompatible. This research employs interviews and focus groups with groups and individuals from various Christian denominations to discuss the ways they view charitable giving and what they prioritize when giving. These firsthand discussions serve to draw concrete conclusions about the ways EAs and members of Christian faith-based groups may prioritize different – or similar – aspects of charitable giving.

LITERATURE REVIEW

The literature review portion of this paper focuses on EA texts concerned with Christian giving and draw parallels or points of contention between Christian and EA giving. This will serve as a short basis of understanding of  effective altruism’s position in relation to charitable giving, and will give context to the Results section of this paper, which will outline the themes that surfaced from interviews conducted with members of Christian faith-based groups.

Effective altruism is a secular philanthropic philosophy which advocates for donating money in the most “effective” way possible – that is, donating to organizations that will allow each donation to achieve the most amount of good, as determined by quantifiable metrics intended to measure health and well-being. Focus areas of EA include global poverty reduction and disease prevention and animal welfare considerations, among select others. Effective altruism is intended to shift the way one thinks about charitable action in every aspect of one’s life. In his book Doing Good Better, William MacAskill discusses this concept in terms of career options; a guiding principle of effective altruism is “earning to give,” the concept of earning a high salary in order to give more money to highly effective charities. MacAskill says, “Taken literally, the idea of following your passion is terrible advice” (3). He says that instead of pursuing personal passions, one should pursue specific job features compatible to one’s strengths so that one may feel satisfaction from successful performance as opposed to personal passion fulfillment. This view on passion in the workforce is very characteristic of effective altruism, as it prioritizes practicality. This highlighting of practicality and effectiveness also illuminates a tension that often arises between effective altruism and Christian viewpoints; Christian teaching often emphasizes the idea of vocation, that one’s career or life path is chosen for him or her and that one’s passions are meant to guide him or her to that life path – a teaching directly incompatible with MacAskill’s.

To further explore these tensions, one can look at the work of EA-aligned organization GiveWell, which provides charity ratings and recommendations of those it deems most effective. A GiveWell blog post titled “6 tips on disaster relief giving” outlines tips that sometimes conflict with typical Christian responses to disaster relief – the first of which being to “Give cash, not clothes (or other goods)” (givewell.org). Churches often hold clothing or canned food drives in response to disasters, but EA advises against such giving, instead suggesting cash donations because “gifts-in-kind burden relief organizations with figuring out how to use what they have; cash allows them to quickly get what they need” (givewell.org). An AlterNet article titled “Busting the Myth That Christians Are More Generous Than Non-Believers” directly discusses Christian giving, using evidence from studies to posit that religious individuals are more generous than non-religious individuals only when giving to “insiders” – members of their same religion or targets of conversion. This points to a difference not only in how but to where Christians and EAs give.

However, some members of the EA community suggest EA can be compatible with religiosity. In “Christianity and Global Poverty: A Former Evangelical’s Reasons to Give,” featured on EA site The Life You Can Save, Rhema Hokama posits that EA and Christian principles overlap in many ways, most broadly in the idea that every person has a moral obligation to help those who need it. Hokama wonders why American Christians don’t focus on financial obligations to the world’s poorest when Jesus made it clear in the Gospels that helping the poor is key to salvation. Evidence shows that it is not for lack of funds that American Christians do not give – in fact, less wealthy, more religious regions of the country give more to charity than wealthier but more secular regions. However, these more charitable regions are prone to giving to their churches; when in-church giving is not included in the calculation, heavily Christian-populated areas show some of the lowest giving percentages. Hokama also questions the effectiveness of the Christian pro-life movement, saying, “In terms of the sheer number of lives lost to malnourishment, disease, lack of clean water—the conditions of extreme poverty—it seems undeniable that efforts to reduce worldwide poverty should be the key political issue at the forefront of the American pro-life agenda.” Hokama urges Christians to consider effectiveness as a useful addendum to their charitable framework, saying “Christians have no reason to regard effective altruism as incompatible with their religious beliefs. Indeed, the priorities of Christian ethics and effective giving reveal striking overlaps,” citing specifically both groups’ belief in moral obligation to provide aid to those who need it.

METHODS

The literature review above provides context on the potential tensions and compatibility between Christian and EA charitable giving. The rest of this research builds on that foundation by discussing interviews and focus groups that were conducted with individuals and groups from multiple Christian denominations.

When reaching out to groups and individuals to interview, it was important to speak with people who held different positions within multiple Christian denominations, in order to understand common principles across different contexts. Two focus groups were conducted; the first included six members of Central Baptist Church on the Upper West Side of New York City. The focus group included four women and two men, ages approximately 35 to 65. The second included four members of the St. Joseph Catholic Worker house on the Lower East Side of New York City. This focus group included one woman and three men, ages approximately 20 to 45.

In addition to focus groups, five individual interviews were conducted with the following people: Fr. Michael McCarthy, Jesuit priest and vice president of Mission Integration and Planning at Fordham University; Fr. Jose-Luis Salazar, Jesuit priest and executive director of Campus Ministry at Fordham University; Sr. Mary Catherine Redmond, member of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Fordham University campus minister; Chris West, head youth minister for high schoolers at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Keller, Texas; and Kimberly Casteline, professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University, who discussed her research of Ghanaian and Nigerian Pentecostal churches.

These interviews focused on the respondents’ personal stances on charitable giving. Questions such as “What makes a faith community successful?” and “What is the most important consideration when making a charitable gift?” allowed church members to discuss the way they prioritize giving in a faith-based context. Other questions included “Is evangelization always a necessary part of a charitable gift?” and “Do you prefer to give time or money? Is one or the other more aligned with the principles of Christianity?”

Another aim of the interviews was to understand respondents’ perspectives on the role of personal connection in charitable giving. Each interviewee was presented with a pair of scenarios: the first, someone who gives charitably by way of a monthly automatic withdrawal from his bank account, and the second, someone who volunteers at a soup kitchen every weekend instead of giving money. Interviewees were asked which scenario they considered more effective, more worthwhile, and more highly praised in the Christian sphere. This discussion of scenarios proved very helpful; each response spoke volumes about the way that Christians made the distinction between “effective” and “worthwhile” giving and which was prioritized in different cases.

After collecting these interviews and focus groups, the most common responses were grouped into themes, guided by Kathy Charmaz’s grounded theory approach to research, to break down the discussions and consider what each theme says about Christian giving and its relationship to EA giving.

RESULTS

Given the common Christian faith across all interviews and focus groups conducted, it is not surprising that recurring themes surfaced in the conversations. When considered as a whole, these themes make up a general Christian understanding of the priorities of charitable giving. While these conglomerates of themes cannot reflect every Christian’s opinion on all aspects of a charitable gift, they provide an overview of the beliefs that many Christians consider helpful in their charitable giving process. The most common themes were as follows: The importance of personal connection between the givers and recipients of charitable gifts, the recognition of religious obligation, and the importance of concrete acts of charity. Within the framework of this research, these themes are placed in conversation with themes of EA-guided giving to create an understanding of the way the two frameworks conflict or coincide.

The importance of personal connection

The most prominent theme across all the interviews was that of the importance of a personal connection in a charitable gift. Nearly everyone cited personal connection as an intrinsic part of a charitable gift, as their religious background emphasizes the importance of loving one’s neighbor and attending to the needs of those in one’s surroundings. While individuals and groups varied greatly in ideology – from the socialist-aligned Catholic Worker to African Pentecostal churches to Jesuit priests – all agreed that personal connection is crucial to a charitable gift.

For instance, when asked about the institutional success of the Catholic Worker, volunteer Chouiabou replied, “Is it successful? It’s been around for a while, and when we establish personal relationships with the guys around – and they seem to be lasting relationships – I guess that would make it successful.” In asserting this, Chouiabou affirmed the organization’s prioritization of human connection over other measures of success such as profit or visibility. When discussing effectiveness in a charitable gift, Catholic Worker volunteer Nathan said, “People who [prioritize effectiveness], a lot of times, are very separated from the actual concept of forming relationships with people, which seems to be the most important part of what we do. I actually know the people here.” Here, Nathan indirectly dismissed the EA approach by way of a common critique that effectiveness often leaves personal connection by the wayside.

Similarly, when Sr. Mary Catherine Redmond was asked about the most important part of giving, she replied, “It’s having the face of the person in front of you, and the experience of being able to talk to people,” and that “it’s the interactions that we have when we do service that really give meaning to the experience.” She echoed the Catholic Worker’s view that reaching out to individuals enriches a giving experience. Fr. Jose-Luis Salazar agreed that face-to-face encounter is necessary in a charitable gift, saying, “We can never do without or even diminish the role of individuals. We really can’t. Ultimately, it’s going to be people distributing to people, and the more names and faces we can provide them, the more effective charitable giving is.” It is interesting that he used the qualifier “effective,” as EA advocates would probably disagree with the notion that personal encounter makes a donation more effective, instead positing that effectiveness comes from streamlining giving processes, often cutting out the personal encounter that may serve as potentially inefficient middleman.

Fr. Michael McCarthy provided a different look at the importance of human connection. Since Fr. McCarthy works closely with university donors, he is familiar with the logistics of charitable gifts. He said that “the most important thing [to consider when donating] is the integrity and authenticity of the organization to use people’s money appropriately.” McCarthy’s discussion of organizational authenticity and impact was interesting because while he noted the importance of face to face impact, he never explicitly prioritized it over financial or effective impact. He lauded intentionality, saying that “there is just a strong level of personal commitment” in personal connection, but also adding that he would not denigrate the importance of donating one’s finances rather than one’s time or talents.

In a more personal realm, Dr. Kimberly Casteline shared an anecdote about an American church group she met in Ghana who asked the Ghanaian community members they were serving about the best way to use their money: “Some of the congregants asked the people there, ‘Do you think it’s better for us to come or do you think we should have just sent money?’…and the people said no. They said, ‘It’s better for us to see you. We wouldn’t have you with us.’” Dr. Casteline underlined the Ghanaian church’s emphasis on the personal connection between giver and recipient of a charitable gift. These examples of faith-based groups emphasizing and prioritizing personal connection highlight the most visible difference between EA and Christian faith-based group visualization of charitable giving – the difference between prioritizing streamlined transaction and prioritizing individual encounter.

Religious obligation to charitable giving

As one would expect, many of the themes that emerged during these discussions dealt with a sense of religious obligation to charitable giving. This broad theme can be broken up into three subgroups: the Christian tithe, Scriptural justification, and the necessity of evangelization.

The Christian tithe

A theme discussed at length was that of the importance of the Christian tithe. Central Baptist parishioner Winnette said of the tithe, “I would send in my tithe because I knew the Bible said I had to tithe.” Many mentions of tithing in the discussion with Central Baptist followed suit – positioning the tithe as something “the Bible says I have to do” or “I am supposed to do.”

It is worth considering whether this sense of obligation to Biblical ordinance is healthy or harmful. Loyalty to the Biblical tradition of tithing is rarely considered problematic within the Christian community, but two comments about tithing were particularly surprising. In one instance, Winnette said, “I won’t write my rent check, I won’t write anything else until I write my tithe check.” This seemed extreme; the lack of situational consideration and the extent of Winnette’s loyalty to tithing was noteworthy. But the more surprising comment came from Clint, who, when explaining his inability to tithe every month due to his obligation as a single parent, said, “Sometimes I do feel guilty because I’m not giving according to what God says […]”. This comment showed a sense of commitment so strong that became undue guilt. The conversation on tithing helped gather an understanding of where Central stands in its relationship to giving, especially to their church, which is its primary focus.

Dr. Casteline’s insights into African Pentecostal churches unearthed a commitment to tithing rooted in specific theology and cultural factors. Casteline discussed the phenomenon of Ghanaian and Nigerian churchgoers earning much less than American churchgoers but tithing a much higher percentage of their income; “Part of that is because of the theological emphasis of these churches on giving and the tithe, but also the Scriptures they pull on that talk about receiving blessings back five- or ten-fold based on what you have given.” She continued on to say:

“So beyond just giving 10% because it’s required by God, you’re also giving in order to get multiple blessings back. So in this way, the preachers emphasize, ‘The more you give, the more you will be blessed.’… it’s this … particular theology about what giving does that’s very different from what we see in Western churches.”

In this way, African churches are stricter about tithing in hopes of receiving blessings. Alternately, Casteline said that American churches view this idea of blessing almost inversely: she said that “churches in the West in general tend to look at the …things in our everyday lives that we can rely on – food, shelter, water, roads, healthcare – and we tend to look at those as, somehow… God saying that we are blessed, that we are better.” This leads to American churchgoers giving more to outside charities, while African churchgoers focus their giving on the tithe, “even giving money [and gifts] to the pastor…in the hopes of getting blessings – blessing the pastor in order to be blessed.” However, this blessing of the pastor often leads to a lack of transparency; “People didn’t really question where the money was going… there was very little transparency and a lot of external critique for these… charismatic pastors who have become very powerful.” This opaqueness was evident when speaking to Central Baptist as well; the members expressed extreme trust that the church would “do God’s will” with the money it was given, but giving to outside organizations was to be regarded with “discernment” of whether a donation was part of God’s will.

The necessity of evangelization

Another very important theme of religious obligation is that of the necessity of evangelization in a charitable gift. As do most individuals in Christian faith-based groups, the groups interviewed highly valued day-to-day evangelization. When I asked Texas-based youth minister Chris West if evangelization is essential to a charitable donation, he immediately answered, “I think it’s 100% a part of every donation,” but was quick to differentiate it from Bible-beating on street corners; he maintained that evangelization doesn’t have to go accompany a concrete donation, nor does it necessarily have to be verbal. He mentioned World Youth Day – an international gathering of Catholic youth – as a source of wordless evangelization, saying, “That was a tool for evangelization so that the whole world can see that youth are fun, the faith isn’t dead.” Chris discussed the importance of taking care of others’ souls through charitable gifts as a means of evangelizing; he said, “We want the whole person to be affected [by charity], like transportation, food, money, job and house – that’s a wholesome charity, but what’s missing in all five of those? The soul. Where are they getting fed spiritually?” Chris advocates spiritual care as a necessity for holistic charity, which he considers to be more “effective,” although EAs may disagree. Congregation members at Central Baptist Church also deem evangelization an important aspect of a charitable gift. Winnette discussed the ever-presence of evangelization at Central:

“Everything that they do here [at Central] always comes back to the Word of God, so it’s not like we’re just giving things away. When we give away bookbags… we have people there that they can pray with… You know, we always want to touch. And they aren’t pushing it on you, but they’re there letting you know.”

However, Clint qualified that statement by saying, “You can’t push the Gospel onto somebody until you meet their physical, mental needs first, because you can’t expect someone to sit there for half an hour listening to you talk about God if they’re hungry!” Here, Winnette showed that evangelization is crucial to Central Baptist, but Clint made it clear that evangelization is not the only aspect of a charitable gift.

Sr. Mary Catherine also discussed the different forms that evangelization can take in a charitable gift; she prioritizes the gift of time spent volunteering to respect the dignity of each person she helps. She said that, as a religious sister, her obligation is “to witness to the gospel values…  there is an importance of human dignity for all people.” Thus, she spreads her Christian values while she gives, but the most important way to do that is not by verbally preaching the gospel but by displaying deep Christian respect for those she serves.

Scriptural justification

Another topic related to the theme of religious obligation was the use of Scriptural justification to validate and encourage charitable giving. Matthew 25:40 -“’Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” – was the verse most often cited, as it deals very directly with Christian service. When asked about Fordham’s responsibility to charitable giving, Sr. Mary Catherine referenced the verse, saying, “I think both the university and the Church are responsible to the least.” Chris West mentioned the verse multiple times; when asked why community service is a requirement for high school youth group students, he replied that “the point of any kind of charitable giving… that should be in the forefront of our minds [is] that this is Christ that we’re serving.” He revisited the verse to say that the most important aspect of a charitable gift is being prayerfully and spiritually present because giving to those in need is giving to Jesus Himself. Fr. Salazar used Matthew 25:42 to frame giving in a different way:

“We are being Godlike when we give away. That’s why we give. It’s not just fear of punishment, ‘When I was hungry, you did not feed Me,’ – that can appeal to some people, but that’s not our way of proceeding, out of fear of punishment. We do it because that’s who God is – who has given us life.”

Fr. Salazar returned to Matthew 25:40 to say, “[With that verse,] Jesus made it personal. He has identified Himself with the one receiving the charity. We say that God is love and love is only evident in action.” This positions giving as a concrete action with concrete effects. The members of Central Baptist Church cited 2 Corinthians 9:7 when they mentioned the Lord’s call to “give with a cheerful heart;” they believe that disposition is a crucial component of Christian giving. In our discussion about Ghanaian and Nigerian churches, Dr. Casteline discussed the difference between African churches’ and Western churches’ attitudes towards giving. Western churches, she said, “emphasize the Scripture that says ‘Give with a cheerful heart,’ or the New Testament scripture where Paul says, ‘Decide in your heart what you want to give, and give that.’” This looseness in Western giving is in stark contrast to the more structured method of giving Casteline observed in African churches, who instead consider giving a stricter obligation.

Concrete acts

Another theme that arose from many of the groups and individuals interviewed was that of the importance of concrete acts as part of charitable gifts. The members of the Catholic Worker, a generally socialist-aligned radical Catholic movement, discussed the importance of structural shift to affect change. Nathan said that, at Catholic Worker houses, “we’re not asking people to give money. Ideally, what we’re asking people to do is completely transform the way that they operate in society, the way they think about their own life.” He continued to say that the solution to societal problems isn’t donating monetarily but “a much more radical change, a complete transformation of the kind of systems that create poverty, the systems that create inequality.” These radical changes, the Catholic Worker believes, must take place in the form of concrete changes to people’s everyday lives, such as the way people consume products and the way they interact with those to whom they give.

Despite discussing the power of prayer at length, Chris West also spoke in depth of the importance of concrete action in charitable giving. Chris said that the Church’s mission is made clear when Jesus tells his apostles to “go and make disciples of all nations.” He continued, “Whatever the mission is, whatever the meditation is, whatever the prayer is, if you don’t act on what you’re praying for… then it’s fruitless.” He also emphasized the importance of the Church as a living organism; “Anything that is stagnant is dead… everything has to be moving, so the Church has the responsibility to move, to act.”

Sr. Mary Catherine echoed Chris’ prioritization of concrete action; she mentioned concrete acts that she performs to give charitably, since as a religious sister she takes a vow of poverty and doesn’t have excess money to give monetarily. She cites keeping food items in her purse to give to homeless individuals, as well as taking regular trips to Habitat for Humanity sites and soup kitchens. She says, “The vow of poverty is not that I live poor, or that I don’t have; it’s that I don’t have so that others can have some.”

CONCLUSION

To conclude, conducting these focus groups and interviews allowed for personal testimonies about Christian-based charitable giving and what considerations are most important when making a charitable donation. Considerations such as personal connection between giver and recipient, often grounded in Scriptural backup, concrete action coupled with evangelization, and the church tithe all surfaced as central to Christian charitable giving. These themes were not necessarily directly incompatible with EA giving – concrete and quantifiable action, for example, is also central to EA giving. However, many themes that are highly prioritized by Christian givers are not prioritized at all by EA; while personal connection is perhaps the most prioritized aspect of a Christian charitable gift, backed by Scripture and church teaching, EAs regard personal connection as an often-superfluous addition to a charitable gift that may hinder the effectiveness of a gift. To be most concise, EAs would view Christian giving as generally superfluous and too emotionally-driven to be effective, as opposed to EAs commitment to giving that is streamlined and quantifiably productive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Barrett, William P. “How To Evaluate A Charity.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 10 Dec. 2014. Web. 18 Jan. 2017.

Charmaz, Kathy. Constructing grounded theory: a practical guide through qualitative analysis. London: Sage Publications, 2006. Print.

Hokama, Rhema. “Christianity and Global Poverty: a former evangelical’s reasons to give.” The Life You Can Save. N.p., 30 Aug. 2014. Web. 17 Jan. 2017.

Tarico, Valerie. “Busting the Myth That Christians Are More Generous Than Non-Believers.” Alternet. N.p., 15 Feb. 2013. Web. 17 Jan. 2017.

MacAskill, William. “Chapter Nine: Don’t ‘follow your passion’.” Doing Good Better. Web. 20 May 2016.

National Philanthropic Trust (2015). Charitable Giving Statistics. National Philanthropic Trust. Retrieved from http://www.nptrust.org/philanthropic-resources/charitable-giving-statistics/

What is Effective Altruism? (n. d.) The Centre for Effective Altruism. Retrieved from http://www.effectivealtruism.org/about-ea/

“6 tips on disaster relief giving.” The GiveWell Blog. N.p., 25 July 2016. Web. 17 Jan. 2017.

 

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