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Liberating Generosity

The storm over the tax benefits of making charitable donations brings into sharp focus the question of generosity – are donations generous only to the extent to which donors derive no material benefit for themselves?

Generosity may always be difficult to talk about, but periods of economic recession make it especially challenging. Yet this is precisely when the needs of the needy are most acute. It is of some encouragement, therefore, that although overall giving declines in recessions, giving from people of faith increases.

Recent research also reveals that the giving of money and time (volunteering) by religious people is disproportionately high, not only to religious charities but to non-religious ones. Should, therefore, the mounting anti-religious movement succeed, the charity sector would implode.

The fact that this movement shows no sign of success globally provides no room for complacency. While the giving level of the 'faithful' is relatively high, its average is below the tenth prescribed in the Hebrew Scriptures. And the fact that giving is inversely related to income – the poor give proportionately more than the rich – means there is vast disposable income amongst the devout that is withheld from charitable causes.

Although fundraising is becoming increasingly professionalized, there are no clever formulas that can liberate this wealth. Giving is not about equations and intensives. Nor is it about being confronted with need, as the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke's Gospel illustrates. It is ultimately – as demonstrated in Luke's contrasting accounts of the encounters of the rich young ruler and Zacchaeus with Jesus – about a spontaneous response to the grace of a lavishly generous God.

In Cape Town in 2010, this response inspired the launch of a campaign to encourage a global culture of Christian generosity. The Global Generosity Network is now establishing resources and local networks, helped by leading entrepreneurs.

Such entrepreneurs understand that wealth distribution relies on wealth creation – their business thinking and practical skills generates wealth for the common good. But they want to engage their hearts, not just their head and hands. They therefore not only invest in, but give to, social causes, motivated by encounters with a self-giving God who demands no return.

Their example demonstrates that thrift and generosity go together. It also shows that liberating generosity is not only about liberating funds, nor even about liberating others, but about our own liberation. The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart.

Peter Heslam

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wealth distribution relies on wealth creation
generosity liberates the giver