In a recent post I wrote about how much to give to charity. Today, I want to bring up an equally touchy subject—one with which Congress is currently wrestling— are all donations really charity? Utah, which is over 60% Mormon, ranks high among states for charitable giving—yet nonprofits that provide services for the poor are always starved of funds.
I suspect the vast majority of itemized donations by Utahns are tithes to the Mormon Church. My question is—does supporting a church really count as charity? If charity is defined as helping the poor and the church spends the majority of contributions on helping the poor, of course, that counts. But I have heard that a relatively modest percentage of tithes and offerings paid to the Church funds programs benefitting the poor and needy. The lion’s share of Church expenditures are for three programs—CES (BYU, seminaries, and institutes), missionary work, and temples—none of which directly benefits the poor—with the exception of building and staffing temples in developing countries which does provide jobs for qualified members there.
Large Mormon families of average income sacrifice to pay their 10% to the church, leaving them little or no money for giving to other organizations. Most members prioritize Church donations—feeling confidant that 100% of their donations are well spent instead of going for the high salaries paid to CEOs of some organizations—and with a belief that their donations further the work of the Church in preparing the world for the Second Coming. Less altruistic motives include the fact that non-tithe payers fail to qualify for temple recommends and leadership positions in their ward and stake. We are also told we will be blessed for making these sacrifices—with the implication that God will withdraw blessings if checkbooks close.
Giving to support a person’s church is necessary and commendable. I’m just not sure that it constitutes charity. Donating in order to maintain membership status and privileges seems more like paying dues to a social organization. Donating out of fear is sad.
Giving to an organization where most of the contribution benefits others in a demonstrated way—such as micro loans to help establish small businesses and improve farm yields, food for starving children, and funds to educate and improve skills is closer to my definition of charity. I think this is what Isaiah had in mind when he wrote, “Draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted.” (58:10)