How much should we be giving to charity? I’ve been thinking a lot about this question – while I don’t have a specific answer to offer, I thought I’d share some various perspectives. The most common answer I’ve heard (especially since I grew up Catholic) is that people should donate 10% of their income. You might have heard this referring to as tithing. But the meaning of the term various through history and across cultures (just take a look on the Wikipedia entry). So how should this be interpreted at present?

I found one group that’s formed a pretty specific answer, called Giving What We Can. Its members pledge to give at least ten percent of their income to organizations that fight poverty in developing countries. This is a slightly different take on what is taught in religious contexts, that individuals should give money to their church, synagogue, mosque, etc. Giving What We Can has devoted much of its site to arguing why using donations to fight poverty in developing countries is the “best buy” for charitable giving, and their perspective is worth reading.

Some of the answers I found on Quora frame the question slightly differently. One author believes that since so few people give anything to charity, it’s more important to focus on whether we give at all, instead of how much we give. I’m not sure what percentage of people give nothing (or very little) to charity, but assuming its a significant number, perhaps that’s the right place to start for some. No one is going to go form zero to giving away much of their income without taking some incremental steps along with way.

The more I think about this, I don’t think there’s a fixed, one-size-fits-all answer for everyone. Should a wage-earning single mother of four really donate the same percentage of her meager income as a married couple of professionals with no kids? How about a recent college grad whose paying of loads of student debt? Or a multi-millionaire?

Instead of answering those questions, I’ll note a couple of examples of people who’ve set the bar very high: Warren Buffet who pledged to give away 99% of his wealth and is encouraging other wealthy Americans to donate at least 50% of theirs; and the widow in Mark 12:41-44, who gives away “all she has” by offering up a couple of small, nearly worthless coins. Read the stories of each, if you haven’t already. Perhaps following the examples of people like this, and challenging ourselves to constantly get closer to those standards is the way to go.

How much do you think we should give to charity? Is there an answer that works for everyone?