Charitable Giving as Voluntary
Voluntary: Differentiated from foreign aid, charitable giving is a voluntary transfer or redistribution of some portion of a person’s resources to another individual or organization. Voluntary giving has a different feel and effect than mandated giving, such as taxes that pay for social programs or foreign aid. Voluntary giving allows for individuals to effectively steward the resources that have been entrusted to them. Voluntary giving also allows for directed giving toward those things a person views as important. Voluntary giving ensures that we can give toward things that do not violate our value system.
Charitable Giving as Benevolent
Benevolent: Charitable giving involves charity in its older usage, which signified love and care for another. (The same root word for charity also stands behind the words “care” and “caress.”) We find an example of the word used in its older sense in the King James Version of the Bible. In the well known “love chapter” of 1 Corinthians, the King James uses the word charity rather than love: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” This speaks to another reason for the importance of the voluntary dimension of charitable giving: coerced giving may or may not be benevolent giving, and only voluntary giving carries with it a clear impression of caritas, of affection for the recipient.
Charitable Giving and Intermediaries
Charitable giving can and does take the form of one individual giving something of tangible value to help meet the need of another individual or family. Here the giver is giving directly to the intended recipient. Favorable tax laws in many countries encourage individuals to give to and through churches, religious institutions, not for profit organizations, NGOs, and other approved entities that are accountable to report to their respective government. In return, individuals often receive some tax benefit or incentive for their charitable activity. Here, the giver gives something tangible and of value to an intermediary institution that then either uses those funds to help address needs or provides a conduit for those funds to get to the intended recipient.
These intermediate groups can bring expertise and local knowledge to the need being addressed, but there is no guarantee of this. Charitable organizations, like any organization, have to meet payroll, and they face the constant temptation of becoming primarily focused on doing what best allows them to meet that goal, rather than what best allows them to encourage human flourishing among those they seek to help. Intermediary also they are not guaranteed to address needs in an effective manner. The law of unintended consequences applies to charitable organizations as well as to individuals and government programs.
Charitable Giving and Unintended Consequences
Even the most altruistic giving, with the best of intentions, does not necessarily achieve the desired end. As with government-to-government foreign aid, sometimes charitable giving may actually do harm. Unhealthy economic dependence is not only created through foreign aid, it also is created through charitable giving, through well-intended generosity on the part of individuals, churches, and NGOs. Visible symptoms include, but are not limited to, undermining human dignity and inhibiting the productive capacity of individuals. Good intentions are not sufficient to ensure positive results.
Charitable Giving and the Bible
From a Biblical perspective, generosity is a non-negotiable for those who desire to fully reflect the image of God. All are called to “excel in the grace of giving” as Paul exhorts the Corinthian church (2 Cor 8:1-7). Generosity is a matter of discipleship. In fact, scripture tells us that is better to give than to receive (Matt. 6:21). We are reminded in the book of Luke that “to whom much has been given, much is required.” This verse does not speak only to the issue of charitable giving of wealth and resources. Rather it serves as a reminder to us that all of life is a gift from God that we are to invest intentionally and generously for His purposes. Caring for widows and orphans is a recurring theme throughout Scripture. Yet, throughout the Bible, financial and material generosity toward the vulnerable and those in need is scarcely separated from personal involvement in the lives of those who exhibit those needs.
Charitable Giving and Subsidiarity
As a general rule, the most effective charity happens in relationship with individuals. This Biblically derived principle is called the principle of subsidiarity: the idea that the needs of people are best met at their most local level. This principle is perhaps contrary to the common secular assumption that money solves problems. No country has risen out of poverty through foreign aid. Likewise, no country will rise of poverty through charitable giving. In fact money alone cannot solve problems. It can perhaps alleviate symptoms (as well as create unintended symptoms). Problems are solved when people get involved in the lives, sometimes messy lives, of others, addressing needs that present themselves at inconvenient times and places.
Charitable giving and tangible generosity presupposes an element of wealth, be it small or great. Concurrent with becoming more generous as a matter of discipleship, we must also understand the value of using God-given abilities to create new wealth and serve others in the marketplace. Indeed, wealth-generating enterprise is biblical and has been the normal way that societies have moved from poverty to economic flourishing. Ethical business enterprise has the capacity to address needs and wants at a local level and to move people from dependence to independence. And a person with business talent may provide the greatest blessing to a region through an approach that has come to be known as business as mission.
Where this is not possible, charitable giving may be an appropriate Christian response for those who are closest to the need and circumstances.