Faith and Family Philanthropy: the Power of Giving to Improve and Strengthen Communities

Be good, be kind, be humane, and charitable; love your fellows; console the afflicted; pardon those who have done you wrong—Zoroaster

And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity —I Corinthians

We. . .have a religion which was given to our forefathers, and has been handed down to us, their children. It teaches us to be thankful, to be united, and to love one another.  —Red Jacket, Seneca orator

Those that give their wealth for the cause of God can be compared to a grain of corn which brings forth seven ears, each bearing a hundred grains.  —The Qu’ran

It is the spirit of charity which makes a locality good to dwell in. He who selects a neighborhood without regard to this quality cannot be considered wise. —Confucius

Leaders of all the world’s widely practiced religions: the Buddha, Mohammed and Jesus, and the Pope, Zoroaster, and Confucius, all point to charity as one of the cornerstones of a well-lived and righteous life. All religions, despite differences in doctrine and practice, encourage their followers to be charitable towards one another and to use charitable behavior to build stronger, more unified communities. In nearly all faiths a tradition of giving is deeply engrained, regardless of the formality of religious practice, and the attitude of a group’s faith towards giving profoundly informs its manner and vehicles of giving.

Native American donors, for instance, have a strong cultural and spiritual tradition which frowns upon the accumulation of wealth or material possessions and prioritizes the needs of the community over the needs of the individual. This, according to Rebecca Adamson, long-time leader of the First Nations Development Institute, makes them more likely to give anonymous need-based gifts and respond most readily to requests from within their communities. African Americans, with a more formalized giving tradition, are more likely to give to their churches; according to a 1998 study by the Independent Sector, more than half of the money given African-American donors went to their churches—a staggering $4.8 billion. For Muslims, charity—or zakat—is one of the five pillars of their faith and requires that they give a certain percentage of their income to help the needy, build mosques, or advance educational causes in their communities.

A common thread among all of these belief systems is the faith in the power of giving to improve and strengthen communities, and to spread joy among givers as well as receivers. Momtaz Mansour, a Maryland-based philanthropist and Coptic Christian, whose family gives more than 10% of their income each year in adherence with their religious tradition, sums it up this way: “I feel that my family has been blessed because we know the wonderful feeling of helping and giving to others.” For Chicago physician and philanthropist, Mohammed Murtaza Arain, the benefits of his Muslim charitable tradition are palpable as well as metaphysical: “There are some activities that give people more endorphins. If you exercise or if you do good work, you have that good feeling and positive endorphins are released in your body. That gives your brain, your heart, your mind, and your soul a boost in spirit.”

For more stories about families whose philanthropy is profoundly influenced by faith, see the National Center’s Faith and Family Philanthropy: Grace, Gratitude, and Generosity.

The Numbers: What the Statistics tell us About Faith and Philanthropy

In the Jewish tradition, charity—or tzedakah—is seen as a means of achieving tikkun olam(the repairing or perfecting of the world) and is an integral part of spirituality and good religious practice. For philanthropists, regardless of social background or adherence to a particular religion, the impetus for giving is the desire to improve the lives of others, to strengthen their communities, and to address dire societal problems: an impulse that is not so different from the pursuit of tikkun olam. And based on the statistics available, America’s family donors of all backgrounds are actively involving themselves in the pursuit of a more perfected world.

A 2002 study by the Independent Sector, Faith and Philanthropy: The Connection Between Charitable Behavior and Giving to Religion, found that the average total amount donated by givers to religious congregations was more than the average amount given by secular givers. Regardless of income level, donors to religious congregations gave substantially more money to charities, both faith-based and secular, than donors giving to non-religiously-affiliated causes only. In households with incomes between $25,000 and $50,000, which comprise the largest percentage of givers with 31.8% of donors, givers to religious congregations gave on average 24.7% percent more annually than secular donors. Donors to religious organizations were not more generous only to faith-based charities, but were more generous overall, tending to give as much or more to non-religious causes they support than other givers who supported only secular causes.

In volunteerism, donors motivated by faith or religious involvement also came out ahead, logging on average more hours per month at both secular and religiously-affiliated charities. So not only are religiously affiliated folks more inclined to reach deeply into their pockets to support charitable organizations, but they are also statistically more likely to get their hands dirty on behalf of causes of all types.

Additional Resources on Faith and Family Philanthropy