Learning to Give, Philanthropy education resources that teach giving and civic engagement


By Yvette McMillan

Graduate Student, Case Western Reserve University


The tithe is generally defined as a tenth of the fruits of one's labor and justly acquired profits owed to God in recognition and paid to one's religious institution. Today, tithing traditionally includes wages earned by employment or secured by other lawful means such as inheritance or royalties. This tithe is generally given as a donation to a house of worship that then pays for the salaries of its religious leaders and support staff, for establishment and upkeep of worship facilities, and for the ongoing operations of the institution. Ironically, because religious institutions often provide support services for congregants and outreach services to the local community (such as food and clothing for the poor), a portion of these tithed funds are often used to support philanthropic activities.

Historic Roots

Tithing is a religious practice of undetermined antiquity common to many belief systems. However, the focus here is its history in the Jewish and Christian faiths. In the Jewish faith, Mosaic Law required that a tenth of all produce, cattle and flock be pronounced sacred to the Lord. According to the Book of Deuteronomy, every third year the tithe was used for charity and not given to the sanctuary. This establishes a link between tithing and charitable works. Christianity, which in some respect establishes its foundation on Judaism, has adhered to this tithing principle from its inception. It was formally legislated by the Synod of Tours in 567 AD and the Synod of Macon in 585 AD and was later sanctioned by English statute law in 1285. Tithing continues to be practiced by many modern day Christian churches worldwide and helps to support their outreach ministries.


Not all members of synagogues and churches adhere strictly to giving ten percent of their income to their particular religious order. However, many congregants do give a portion of it. The gifts are often viewed as an expression of a faith in and reliance upon God. It is to many an act of worship.

Understanding the religious significance of tithing will help professionals from nonprofit organizations that work with religious institutions. It will aid them as they accept funds from congregations that want to help address specific needs in the community, such as hunger relief. It may also aid outside professionals in being sensitive to the conflict church leaders face when they consider accepting government funds, which do not represent a faith in God, to assist with church outreach to the community.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

By their very nature and mission, most religious institutions are philanthropic, attempting to help others and make the world a better place. This is especially true when considering the Jewish directive to repair the earth and the Christian objective to redeem it. Through these aims, churches and synagogues often pass on some of the tithed funds to other organizations that are involved in charitable works in their communities. For example, a church that gives a portion of its tithes to the American Red Cross to provide food and water for people in a hurricane-stricken city.

Also, in recent times, there has been much discussion about the important role of churches, synagogues and mosques in meeting the needs of the disenfranchised—those underprivileged citizens whose needs are not met by the private business sector or by government. Many religious institutions use tithes to fund charitable works that address these needs directly. When their assistance leads to the disenfranchised being integrated into mainstream society, it positively affects the country's standard of living.

An additionally significant effect that tithing has on the philanthropic sector is that these dollars committed to religious institutions are not then available for donating directly to other nonprofit endeavors. In other words, an individual has only a limited amount of money to give for charitable causes, and if the vast majority of those dollars are committed to the church, the person will have little left to give to other organizations. In fact, the vast majority of U.S. citizens who make charitable contributions give the money to their church, synagogue or mosque.

Key Related Ideas

  • Almsgiving

  • Charity

  • Gemilut chasidim (good deeds—Jewish)

  • Mosaic Law

  • Redemption

  • Reparation

  • Sedaqah (voluntary contributions—Muslim)

  • Separation of church and state

  • Stewardship

  • Tzedakah (acts of charity—Jewish)

  • Zakah (obligatory giving—Muslim)

The issues of separation of church and state may be the basis for a constitutional challenge regarding these new faith-based initiatives. It may also create unexpected alliances between such organizations as the ACLU and Christian advocacy groups.

Important People Related to the Topic

Biblical Abraham; biblical Moses.

Important Related Nonprofit Organizations

Churches, mosques, religious institution governing bodies, synagogues.


Michigan Neighborhood Partnership. Third Black Philanthropy Conference, May 2001.

Packer, J.I., Merrill C. Tenney, and William White Jr. Nelson's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Bible Facts. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995.

Pfeiffer, Charles F. The New Combined Bible Dictionary and Concordance. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1987.

Wood, D.R.W. et al. New Bible Dictionary. Leicester, England: Intervarsity Press, 1996.

——- "Bush Plan: Few Details, Plenty of Debates." Non Profit Times (March 2001).

——- Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia. Microsoft, 1999.