How Much Should You Give?

Few people would argue that one should not ‘give’ to help others. Even the most hardened “market” believers will agree that they have been beneficiaries of ‘giving’ by their own parents- imagine a new born child asked to “fend for itself in the marketplace” and compete for everything.

But HOW MUCH should one give? What is the right benchmark for each person?

Many religions point towards this- the Christian tithe, Jewish tzedekah and Sikh dasvand all refer to giving 10% of one’s income every year. Zakat in Islam is indicated at 2.5% of one’s wealth every year (which will start off at 2.5% of income in the beginning but well over 30% of one’s income at the later stages of life).

While Hinduism doesn’t offer a definitive benchmark (“whatever is above requirement” is what the Vedas say), the Parasara Smriti recommends 8% of income. Mythologies eulogise Mahabali who gave not just his entire kingdom, but his own self, and ‘Daanveer Karna’ who gave away everything including his own protection, and in his dying moments, even all the “good karma” he had accumulated in life.

In more “data driven terms”, the people of the USA give approximately 2% of their income every year in donations. While no firm data is available for India, various studies indicate we are at under 0.3% of income. This includes all our donations to beggars, to temples and religious contributions. And Americans give 0.8% of their income to religion, more than triple what we Indians do- so the argument that Indians give a lot for religion also doesn’t stand on any reliable legs. Clearly, we need to do more.

So how do we figure out what is the right amount for us?

The default belief is “whatever is in excess of what you reasonably need for yourself and your family”. Unfortunately, as Gandhi famously said, “there’s enough in this world for everyone’s need, but not enough for even 1 person’s greed”. So what needs are “reasonable” becomes the key question. Few would argue against basic food, clothing, shelter, healthcare and other basic needs for oneself, though the poor in India and elsewhere consistently show that they are able to give to help others even WITHOUT meeting these needs for themselves. As a famous quote used often by Mother Teresa says, “It is not giving, till it hurts”.

In any case, even if you believe that you can only give what you don’t need, a good way to figure out how much you can afford to give, is through a simple spreadsheet calculation, where you put down all that you reasonably need for yourself and your family, and see what you are left over with to still give away. LivingMyPromise, which encourages Indians to give away 50+% of their wealth, has designed an interesting “philanthropy calculator” that helps you figure out how much you can give.

That being said, in many ways, our beliefs and values determine not just WHY we must give, but also how much.

Those who believe that they have reached where they are largely due to luck (of the ovarian lottery, getting into the right schools, being at the right place at the right time), have a deep sense of gratitude and a desire to “pay it forward”. They are often the highest givers (as a % of their wealth and income). Those who are always aware that “dust thou art, to dust returneth” tend to be very high givers too.

Believers in “karma” give based on their “extent of belief” in Karma- those who believe in it deeply give a lot, but those who are suspicious about whether a next life exists, might be more reluctant to give.

One of the BIGGEST reasons Indians give less is because we like to pass on wealth to the next generation. It is a time-honoured tradition to leave everything behind for one’s children. A nice Hindi couplet questions this belief- ‘पूत कपूत तो का धन संचय, पूत सपूत तो का धन संचय’. If your child is bad (incompetent or evil) they will blow up all the wealth you leave them, so why save up for them? If your child is good (competent or virtuous), they will not need your wealth at all, so why save up for them?

Finally, there’s a simple and rational “Return on Investment” argument that can help you figure out how much you can give, where you trade off the marginal utility of money and the pleasures it buys you, against the joy of seeing the same money buy a MUCH higher level of joy for someone else.

One of the most poignant memories of “how giving can make a difference” for me, was on a “verification visit” in Bihar to check if a farmer had indeed got a cataract surgery that an NGO claimed he had been given for free. When I met him, he explained 2 things to me- first, that after the surgery which he did receive, he was now able to work in the field and earn Rs80 every day, enough to feed himself and his elderly wife.

Given that the surgery then cost Rs1,200, that’s a “ROI” of more than 150% per month! But the second thing he said was that for the first time in his life, he was able to see his toddler grandchild, because the cataract had allowed him to only hear the child earlier.

As I rode my jeep back to Gaya that night (coincidentally, the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment), I had my own epiphany – that the sheer joy one can experience in seeing someone else truly happy FAR FAR exceeds the petty pleasures of a foreign holiday or a fancy meal. And it reinforced my belief that at least for myself, giving away anything less than 99% of my wealth would not be OK.

Originally published on the GiveIndia blog on September 28, 2021.


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