What should you be giving to charity?

By Jane Thomas 22 July 2010

It’s hard to work out what you ‘should’ be giving to charity. 1% of income? 3%? Maybe even 50%?

1% is the suggestion of Nick Hurd, the UK Charities Minister. 3%, the average level of annual income given by poorer people in the UK, as quoted by Theresa Lloyd in Philanthropy UK Quarterly.

And the call to give 50% comes from Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet, who are encouraging billionaires to give away half of their income to charities, as part of their giving pledge campaign.  (Sean Stannard-Stockton has been writing some great blogs on the giving pledge I would recommend reading). The Gates and Buffett have had a decent number sign up already, including Paul Allen,  co-founder of Microsoft with Gates, who just last week signed up to give away over half of his approx $13.5bn fortune.

What this pick-up rate suggests to me is that donors actually quite like being told how much they should be giving. Chances are that, before the pledge, few of the billionaires that have signed up now would have thought of giving away half of their fortunes.  But once you see one person doing it, then another, then another, you start to think that perhaps you could or should be thinking about giving away a little or a lot more than you thought you could.

Of course, for most people in the world, giving away half of your income is not such a realistic option. But I think, whatever their wages, people are still curious to know what they ‘should’ be giving, and what an acceptable level is. It’s so rarely, if ever talked about that, that most people probably couldn’t even pull a figure out of the air. When asked, people usually fall back on religious examples, such as the 10% Christian tithe, the 10% commanded by Jewish law (except for those without the means to give it),  or the 2.5% minimum that Zakat requires Muslims to give. And while Nick Hurd obviously had good intentions with his 1% quote, I hope that people don’t start to think that 1% should be the norm.

I must admit I’ve never sat down and thought about how much I think I could, in reality, afford to give to charity. Probably I should. But I do remember one time when a charity street fundraiser persuaded me to sign up to his cause by asking how much I spent on magazines every month. It certainly made me think more about what I choose to spend my money on and challenged me on what I though I could and couldn’t afford to give. Gates and Buffet are doing exactly the same thing. Just on a much, much bigger level.

NB. There is a fun little tool on the Intelligent Giving website that works out what proportion of your income you’d have to give to equal a host of other donors, from the average British or American donor right up to Elton John and Bill Gates. Have a try, you could be surprised by the results.