How Should LDS Christians Give to Charity?

It’s a heart wrenching decision.  A beggar asks you for money.  You remember the words of King Benjamin: “Ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain.”[1]  You also remember Christ’s commandment to feed the hungry, take in the stranger, and clothe the naked.[2]

At the same time, you have practical concerns about how the money would be used.  A 2002 questionnaire of 54 panhandlers in Toronto found that the median monthly budget of panhandlers was $200 for food, $112 for tobacco, $80 for alcohol and other illicit drugs and $120 for all other items.[3]  In the last twelve months, 93% reported tobacco use, 37% reporting cocaine use, 9% reporting heroin use, and 80% reporting alcohol use.[4]  Of those that reported alcohol use, 26% reporting daily alcohol consumption, 28% reporting alcohol consumption 1-6 times per week.[5]

When you see these statistics, you may feel justified if you refuse a beggar.  You might say, “there are better ways to help the less fortunate.”  That may be true, but that excuse only works if you find and a better alternative.  If not, you are simply justifying yourself in sin (unless you do not have the means).[6]  So what are the alternatives?  Should you ever give to panhandlers?  How well are LDS Christians fulfilling their obligations to the poor?

Fast Offerings and Humanitarian Aid

For LDS Christians, the obvious place to start is by donating a generous fast offering and perhaps to the church’s humanitarian aid program.  According to a 2014 study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, the average active, U.S. Latter-day Saint donated around $650 to social causes through the church (excluding tithing) annually. [7]

We have been commanded to fast regularly and give a generous fast offering.  According to President Kimball, “Each member should contribute a generous fast offering for the care of the poor and the needy. This offering should at least be the value of the two meals not eaten while fasting.”[8]

President Kimball also counseled that well-off members should give more.  “I think that when we are affluent, as many of us are, that we ought to be very, very generous … I think we should … give, instead of the amount saved by our two meals of fasting, perhaps much, much more—ten times more when we are in a position to do it.”[9]

Still, we might wonder how fast offering and LDS humanitarian aid compares to other possible charitable donations.  According to the church, “every dollar given to the Bishop as a fast offering goes to assist the poor.”[10]  The church also states that “100% of every dollar donated” to Latter-day Saint Charities (which excludes fast offerings) “is used to help those in need — without regard to race, religion or national origin.”[11]  Presumably, the overhead is paid for by tithing.

However, even if 100% of funds are used to “assist the poor,” that does not necessarily mean those funds are used most effectively.  I can find no studies on the effectiveness of either program compared to potential alternatives.  Very few charitable organizations have any studies analyzing their effectiveness, so this is not very surprising.  Still, we can evaluate the structure of these programs to deduce their effectiveness.

Fast Offerings

Distributions of fast offerings are administered by Bishops, who meet with and determine the needs of members and then either pay for needs directly (such as paying rent to a landlord) or give members a form for the Bishop’s storehouse, where they can receive food and other essential items.[12]  With over 12,000 wards in the United States alone, this is a very decentralized system.  It relies on personal relationships to both determine need and prevent abuse.

In theory, the decentralized system could also be its downfall.  If a local Bishop is parsimonious, then the poor might not get the help they need.  According to anecdotal evidence, the more common problem is that Bishops spend more than their ward brings in in fast offerings, leading to deficits even in relatively affluent wards.[13]  Another potential criticism is that a goal to make wards, stakes or areas self-sufficient may not be ideal in a global church where members in some areas experience extreme poverty.

But overall, the model seems remarkably stable.  I could find no negative stories about the experience and a number of positive ones.  The church paid three months rent for a woman to help her leave an abusive relationship.[14]  A family with three kids got food from the Bishop’s storehouse when the father lost his construction job.[15]  Other church members saying that “the no-strings-attached funds carried them through circumstances that could have spiraled into disaster and poverty.”[16]  Fast offerings may not be effective at saving lives as certain anti-malarial programs (discussed in the non-church charities section, below), but it’s a solid program.

Humanitarian Aid

As with fast offerings, there aren’t any public studies demonstrating the effectiveness of the Church’s humanitarian aid fund.  Any study would not be particularly useful anyway, since the fund often changes programs.  As of March 2020, the fund’s programs are wheelchairs, clean water, food initiative, vision care, maternal and newborn care, immunization and emergency response,[17] but programs can be added or removed.

The church doesn’t allow you to donate to a specific fund (i.e. just wheelchairs).  The reasoning is that if funds are earmarked for a specific purpose, and if the purpose for that fund is then accomplished, then the funds will sit unused for long periods of time when they could be immediately used in another area where there is a pressing need.

Intuitively, that approach makes sense.  One of the criticisms of humanitarian aid generally is that it has become massive industry — 37,000 organizations competing for $160 billion annually[18] — and that it is, to some extent, dependent on continuing the very conditions it seeks to ameliorate.  Some critics have gone so far as to criticize humanitarian organizations for perpetuating crises.[19]  By maintaining flexibility to close completed programs, LDS humanitarian aid is probably better suited to avoid the more common pitfalls of secular humanitarian programs.

As with fast offerings, there aren’t any publicly available studies demonstrating the effectiveness of the church’s humanitarian aid.  However, the church’s approach seems intuitively sound, and there are no indications of any problems with the program.

Giving to Non-Church Charities

Should Latter-day Saints also give to secular charities?  In the same 2014 University of Pennsylvania survey, church-going U.S. Latter-day Saints reported donating an average of $1,173 per year “worthy non-religious causes.”[20]  The study did not indicate which secular causes received the support of Latter-day Saints.

If American LDS secular giving parallels the non-religious giving of Americans generally, then donations would be split between educational (21.3%), human services (18.1%), foundations (16.6%), health (13.8%), public society benefit (10.7%), international (8.3%), arts, culture and humanities (7.0%) and environment/animals (4.3%).[21]

Avoiding Certain Charities

What should be the guiding principles when giving to secular organizations?  From an analytical perspective, there are two dominant approaches.  The first and older approach, used by Charity Navigator and charitywatch.org, is to look at statistics such as the organization’s transparency and how it uses its funds.  For instance, organizations that spend a large percentage of donations on advertising and overhead will be ranked lower by Charity Navigator.[22]

This approach can be useful for avoiding particularly problematic charities.  For instance, “Kars4Kids” with its catchy jingle[23] is rated 1 out of 4 stars by Charity Navigator on financial metrics[24] because of its large overhead costs.  Charity Watch has blasted the organization for concealing its true purpose: 99.9% of Kars4Kids’ $90 million raised from 2012-2014 was spent on its sister organization Oorah, which specializes in Orthodox outreach programs for children of Jewish faith.[25]  Many would be surprised to learn that their donated cars fund a Jewish-only evangelical outreach program.

Another well known but less extreme example is the Susan G Komen for the Cure, the largest and best funded breast cancer organization in the United States.[26]  You might know them for their “race for the cure” and signature pink ribbons, which the organization has attempted to trademark and prevent other cancer charities from using.[27]  The organization gets 2 out of 4 stars by Charity Navigator on financial metrics because of its relatively large administrative and fundraising expenses and the high pay to its CEO, who made $684,717 in the fiscal year of 2012, causing blowback from donors.[28]

The best way to avoid problematic charities is to do some preliminary research, by googling, using Charity Navigator, charitywatch.org and other Charity watchdog sites.  This is especially good practice before giving to a charity based on an advertisement or as part of a large, public event.

Most Effective Charities

Avoiding bad charities can only take you so far.  A charity can spend very little on overhead but still be ineffective.  If you are interested in short-term interventions that maximizes lives saved or improved per dollar, then GiveWell.org is a great resource.  It tends to focus on short-term, internationally focused organizations such as the Against Malaria Foundation, Hellen Keller International’s Vitamin A Supplementation Program, the SCI Foundation and GiveDirectly.  You can read detailed reports on why GiveWell has recommended each of these charities.

The main downsides with an evidenced based approach is that (1) it will almost always focus on short term results as those are the easiest to analyze and (2) there may be positive interventions that are not prioritized because their impact is difficult to quantify.  Even with these caveats, however, there is a compelling case for supporting these charities.  The Against Malaria Foundation, for instance, can purchase and distribute life-saving malaria nets for $4.59 each, and the organization conducts post-distribution surveys to ensure that the nets are being used as intended.[29]

Another charity worth mentioning is the Bountiful Children’s Foundation (originally called the Liahona Foundation before the church asked it to change its name).  It was founded in 2008 by Latter-day Saints when a young boy of a Latter-day Saint family passed away from malnutrition after their family was only able to afford giving him banana water.  At the beginning, the founders focused on malnourished LDS children who may not have gotten the support they need because they were living in a poorer country.   There are no studies on its effectiveness, but I have anecdotally heard good things.  If you are interested in international relief run by members of the church but not affiliated with the church, it is worth checking out.

Local Charities and Ad Hoc Giving

How many of us have stood on the doorstep as a boy tries to get you to contribute to help his baseball program?  Or been asked to contribute for a local food bank drive?  Or to chip in to help with a girl scout troop?  Almost everyone agrees that this is not as effective on a dollar for dollar basis as, say, well designed international charities.  But does that mean we should never contribute to these causes?

The purpose of local giving isn’t really to bring about the most effective change.  More often, its purpose is to strengthen social bonds and make the giver feel good.  A study by the National Institutes of Health indicated that giving – and especially voluntary giving – led to greater pleasure activation in the brain.[30]  It seems likely that this effect is even greater when you interact personally with the recipient, although I could find no publicly available studies to confirm this point.

Even if local charitable giving isn’t the most effective form and giving in and of itself, it may have a number of positive externalities.  Besides increased happiness and stronger community bonds, it may also increase your propensity to contribute and volunteer in other ways.

Giving Directly to Other Members

Another form of giving that may not be the most effective on a per dollar basis, but may have positive externalities, giving directly to other church members.  Growing up, my family would perform a charitable ding-dong-ditch where we would leave items for a needy family in the ward around Christmas.

Similar to the section on “local charities,” the point of this for of giving isn’t necessarily to be the most effective on a dollar basis.  When you give to someone you know personally and who you know is deserving, it gives usually gives you a strong sense of joy.  It also provides a valuable teaching opportunity to your children, provided that they can responsibly participate.

We should also remember that the Gospel does not require us to be stern utilitarians.  If the Spirit prompts us to help another member in our ward, then we should obey.  If we find happiness in helping someone, even better.  That doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye to the effectiveness of our giving, only that effectiveness is not the only criteria that Latter-day Saints use when deciding whether and how to give.

Giving to Beggars

Giving to beggars is an especially difficult problem.  In an April 1988 version of the Ensign, John F. O’Donnal, then President of the Guatemala City Temple, Guatemala advised as follows:

“Based on the scriptures and on my experiences, I have determined that giving is a personal matter to be decided by each individual as guided by the Spirit. What makes the decision so difficult is that it is impossible for us to help all the needy with whom we are confronted. Most travelers have had the experience of being surrounded by so many beggars that it would be impossible to give even a pittance to each. In such situations, daily prayer for wisdom in all that we do can guide us to know in our hearts by the whisperings of the Spirit when and to whom we might give.[31]

O’Donnal’s advice is essentially to follow the Spirit.  I would add that you may consider the external effects of giving.  Would giving to this beggar make you more likely to be kind to others?  Would it make you more likely to contribute to other causes?  Would it make you feel joy?  All of these factors may be taken into account.

Another factor to take into account is how you should accept or reject a panhandlers’ offer.  The Homeless Hub — which primarily focuses on Canadian homelessness — recommends that either way, you should “have the decency to look someone in the eye and acknowledge them.  That sounds simple, but the fact is, many people who are panhandling are routinely ignored, sworn at, harassed, robbed and assaulted. Having someone look them in the eye and recognize them as a person can be very affirming.”[32]  Of course, you should always follow the promptings of the Spirit and stay safe, but to the extent you are able to do so, this seems like good advice.

Do Latter-day Saints Give Effectively?  Do We Give Enough?

If charitable giving were a matter of keeping up with the Joneses, active Latter-day Saints would be doing well.  Even without counting tithing, LDS outperform the average American, where individual donations make up a larger percentage of national GDP than any other country.[33]  But spiritual progression is not graded on a curve.  The question isn’t whether active LDS Chrisitans are giving more than the average.  The question is whether we are doing enough to fulfill the covenants that we have made.

In 2014, the University of Pennsylvania published a study on LDS giving and volunteering.[34]  2,664 church-going Latter-day Saints in four stakes in Pennsylvania and New Jersey (19.6%), Michigan (13.7%), California (35.6%) and Utah (31.1%) were polled on their volunteer work and charitable giving.  Outside of tithing, 69.9% of respondents gave to social causes through the church such as fast offerings, and the average Latter-day Saint gave $650 annually (including those that did not donate at all).

In addition, 48.3% of respondents gave to “worthy non-religious causes,” with an average donation of $1,173 (including those that did not donate at all).  Combined with other forms of giving (such as in kind donations), the average respondent donated $2,024 in addition to being a full tithe payer.  Importantly, the study asked often polled the husband and wife from the same household and asked that they not double count, so $2,024 represents an underestimate of the respondents’ household giving.

A 2016 Pew Study found $50,000 was around the median household income of U.S. Latter-day Saints, with 47% making below that figure and 53% making above that.[35]  Adding everything together, active American Latter-day Saints probably give around 4% of their household income to non-tithing charity.

In 2017, all U.S. individuals gave $286.65 billion to religious and charitable causes,[36] or around $2,271 per household.  Donations to churches compromised 31% of all donations (including donations made by foundations and corporations).[37]  Assuming 31% of individual donations also went to churches,[38] the average U.S. household donated around $1,567 to non-church causes in 2017.  With a U.S. median household income of $61,372 in 2017, this represents around 2.6% of household income.

Even without counting tithing, it appears that church going U.S. Latter-day Saints probably pay a bit more than the American average.  I will not attempt to determine whether Latter-day Saint giving is sufficient given the covenants that we have made.

Latter-day Saints could probably do a more effective job at discussing charitable giving with each other.  Although we must be careful not to do our “alms before men,”[39] it would not hurt to compare notes and get ideas from each other.

Conclusion

When the Savior spoke to his disciples on the Mount of Olives for the final time, he foretold the ending of the world.  “When the Son of Man shall come again in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory.  And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth up his sheep from the goats: and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on his left.”

“Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was an hungered and you gave me drink: I was thirsty and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger and ye took me in: naked and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. … Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”[40]

Our acts of service and our giving is one of the most reliable indicators of our true conversion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We should follow the Spirit’s promptings on where and how much to give.  The Lord’s counsel to Oliver Cowdrey seems appropriate here: “you must study out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore you shall feel that it is right.”[41]  I hope we are as purposeful about our charitable giving.

What do you think?  What is the best way for Latter-day Saints to evaluate their giving options?

[1] Mosiah 4:16

[2] Matthew 25:34-40

[3] Rohit Bose and Stephen W. Hwang, Income and Spending Patterns Among Panhandlers, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC121964/

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] See Mosiah 4:17-18

[7] Ram Cnaan, Van Evans, Daniel W. Curtis, Called to Serve: the Prosocial Behavior of Active Latter-day Saintshttps://www.sp2.upenn.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/cnaan_lds_giving.pdf

[8] Spencer W. Kimball, Welfare Services (1977) https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1977/10/welfare-services-the-gospel-in-action?lang=eng

[9] Ibid.

[10] Joseph B. Wirthlin, The Law of the Fast (April 2001) https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2001/04/the-law-of-the-fast?lang=eng

[11] https://www.ldsphilanthropies.org/humanitarian-services

[12] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/new-era/2008/05/where-do-fast-offerings-go?lang=eng

[13] Gordon Smith, Fast Offerings: Are Mormons Stingy?  https://www.timesandseasons.org/harchive/2005/01/are-mormons-stingy/

[14] The Guardian, Salt Lake City offers glimpse of socialism, Mormon style https://www.theguardian.com/global/2019/jul/02/salt-lake-city-socialism-mormon-style-utah

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] https://www.ldsphilanthropies.org/humanitarian-services/funds/wheelchair-distribution

[18] Linda Polman, The Crisis Caravan

[19] See generally Linda Polman, The Crisis Caravan.  Polman is particularly critical of certain humanitarian aid in warzones, especially where aid organizations allow local military forces to steal aid in exchange for access.  According to Polman, the end result may be a perpetuation of the crisis, making things worse than if no aid had been given at all.

[20] Ram Cnaan, Van Evans, Daniel W. Curtis, Called to Serve: the Prosocial Behavior of Active Latter-day Saintshttps://www.sp2.upenn.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/cnaan_lds_giving.pdf

[21] Giving USA 2018, the Annual Report on Philanthropy.  A free summary of key findings can be found on the Charity Navigator website here: https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=42

[22] https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=48

[23] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8UV7SAhvG4

[24] Charity Navigator, Kars4Kids, https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=search.summary&orgid=11555

[25] Charity Watch,  Costly and Continuous Kars4Kids Ads Disguise Charity’s Real Purpose, https://www.charitywatch.org/charity-donating-articles/costly-and-continuous-kars4kids-ads-disguise-charity39s-real-purpose

[26] Gayle A. Sulik (2010). Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health. United States of America: Oxford University Press. pp. 146–150. ISBN 978-0-19-974045-1. OCLC 535493589.

[27] Marks, Clifford M. (August 5, 2010). “Charity Brawl: Nonprofits Aren’t So Generous When a Name’s at Stake”. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved September 1, 2010. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703700904575390950178142586?mod=WSJ_WSJ_US_News_6#articleTabs%3Darticle

[28]  Hall, Cheryl (May 3, 2013). “Nancy Brinker gets big pay raise”. Dallas News. Archived from the original on May 3, 2013, https://web.archive.org/web/20130503143633/http://bizbeatblog.dallasnews.com/2013/05/nancy-brinker-gets-big-pay-raise.html/

[29] https://www.givewell.org/charities/amf

[30] William T. Harbaugh, Ulrich Mayr, Daniel R. Murghart, Neural Responses to Taxation and Voluntary Giving Reveal Motives for Charitable Donations (Science, June 15, 2007).  A free summary can be found here: https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/brain-imaging-reveals-joys-giving

[31] John F. O’Donnal, When is it appropriate to give to beggars?  https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1988/04/i-have-a-question/when-is-it-appropriate-to-give-to-beggars?lang=eng

[32] Homeless Hub, Should I Give Money to Panhandlers?  https://www.homelesshub.ca/resource/should-i-give-money-panhandlers

[33] Charities Aid Foundation, Gross Domestic Philanthropy:  An International Analysis of GDP, tax and giving,  https://www.cafonline.org/docs/default-source/about-us-policy-and-campaigns/gross-domestic-philanthropy-feb-2016.pdf

[34] Ram Cnaan, Van Evans, Daniel W. Curtis, Called to Serve: the Prosocial Behavior of Active Latter-day Saintshttps://www.sp2.upenn.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/cnaan_lds_giving.pdf

[35] Pew Research Center, How Income Varies Among U.S. Religious Groups (2016) https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/10/11/how-income-varies-among-u-s-religious-groups/

[36] Giving USA 2018, the Annual Report on Philanthropy.  A free summary of key findings can be found on the Charity Navigator website here: https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=42

[37] Ibid.

[38] This is probably an underestimate.  Intuitively, corporations and foundations would probably be less inclined to donate to churches vis a vis individuals, though the free summary of the Giving USA 2018 report does not include any statistics on this point.

[39] Matthew 6:1

[40] Matthew 25: 31-40

[41] Doctrine & Covenants 9:8

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