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Giving and God: Why do people give to charities?

Published: Friday, Nov. 1 2013 9:30 a.m. MDT

These children in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia benefited from drinking water provided with help from charitywater.org.

Chris Sacca, Sacca via flickr

Amy Zehnder has seen giving on a huge scale. As a senior wealth dynamics coach in Denver for U.S. Bank's Ascent Private Capital Management, she helps ultra-wealthy people ($50 million or more in assets) manage and plan their charitable giving.

But when asked for an example of how charitable giving can change a family, she mentions what she observed in her family of friends. Her friends took their teenagers on a vacation to do charitable work with a group of kids in New Mexico.

"The family spent a week helping and serving the kids," Zehnder says. "It bonded the family together. It created unity. It created purpose. And it changed how they are behaving on a daily basis."

And that, she says, is what she tries to do for her company's wealthy clients and their families, learn "the spirit of giving and how powerful it is."

And that spirit of giving is big in the United States. According to CharityNavigator.org, Americans gave $316.23 billion in 2012 (about 2 percent of GDP). Of that, the majority (72 percent) came from individuals; corporations account for 6 percent of charitable donations.

And the largest benefactors of this giving are religious organizations — receiving 32 percent of all donations. Much of these donations go to local houses of worship, according to CharityNavigator.org.

With all this giving going to religious groups, it may appear that religious people are more charitable than non-religious people. But are they? When experts familiar with charitable giving look at the reasons for giving, they find a complex mix of motivations — some that fit tightly into religious life, and others that are less so.

Reasons to give

Jason Franklin divides the motivations for giving into six different areas.

One of those areas is faith. Franklin, adjunct professor of philanthropy at NYU and executive director of Bolder Giving (a nonprofit group that spotlights everyday philanthropists), says many people say they give because of their faith or religious teaching. "Every major religion has teachings on giving," he says.

And so people give to their churches or to people in need.

Another reason for giving is enthusiasm for a cause. "Giving is only a vehicle to express their passion," Franklin says.

He also says it is common for people to give to many different organizations that express different passions they have from helping homeless children to working for climate change.

The third reason people give is the desire to make an impact on the world. This is particularly appealing to people who have larger amounts of wealth.

A fourth reason is fairness; people see inequity in the world and they want to do something to help ease the results of that inequity.

The fifth reason people give, Franklin says, is simplicity. People become concerned about consumerism and their own consumption and begin to cut back — giving the excess to various charities. "The act of giving changes your perspective on life," he says. "They want that shift in perspective."

The final reason people give is one that Franklin says is often overlooked: Joy. People like how it makes them feel. Franklin says what one giver said sums it up: "The best money I ever spent I gave away."

Giving votes

Cliff Guthrie says charity is like voting.

"Whenever people give to a charity," says Guthrie, an associate professor who teaches about philosophy, religion and ethics at Husson University in Bangor, Maine, "every dollar we spend, no matter what it is on, is a vote for the way you want the world to be. Every dollar you spend is a vote."

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