With the year coming to an end, it is the season of making donations to organisations doing good in the world. In both Canada and the USA, this is motivated by a tax deadline; donations to certain charities by December 31 can be tax deductions for that year.  It’s an opportunity to lay out here a concept that I helped draft a decade ago: the “Social Justice Tithe”.

The Social Justice Tithe means giving at least 10% of your income to some combination of charities, religious groups, and political groups that enact your values.

Income means gross income, though some related measures suggest various kinds of net income (see below). The recipient list intentionally include different kinds of groups, some which can offer tax receipts (tax deductions, for those of you in the USA) and some which cannot. The crucial part is “enact your values”. It’s based on the insight that donating money can be a means to make the world “better”, however you might define “better”. This makes the donation a satisfying act of self-fulfillment, rather than a grudging act of bowing to another’s expectations. It is expected that the donation will be spread across multiple recipients, not given all to one, for instance to one church. And the definition isn’t tied to a specific time span, though it makes sense to measure it over a fiscal or calendar year.

The Social Justice Tithe provides a benchmark for people to evaluate their generosity.  Hopefully, it encourages people to stretch a little farther than they might otherwise.  It draws on the historical resonance of a tithe in European Jewish and Christian history. But for people in the modern, secular world, it provides a way to detach the tithe from solely religious recipients, and especially from committing to a single religious recipient.


It is my belief that, while people use the terms “social justice” and “tithe” together from time to time, the use of this phrase to mean this particular benchmark of generosity originated with our group and at a known time.

The time was late 2001. The place was the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA), in California. I had been made head of a group of smart and committed people, and we were responsible for the church’s annual fundraising drive. That fall, both the church and the regional Unitarian Universalist Assocation leadership brought in consultants and training in fundraising, starting with an examination of the values and goals that motivated the church’s existence at all. The team came up with a range of thoughtful ideas — I’m particularly pleased we changed the name of the campaign from “Canvass”, emphasising the chore of working through a list of members, to “Membership Renewal”, framing the campaign as each person rethinking for themselves what they were trying to accomplish by being associated with the church. It’s fun to look back through those records. I’m proud of what we did.

One source of our ideas was the Judeo-Christian tradition of tithing, meaning a 10% share. Islam has a related duty called zakat. As a church, tithing seemed like a benchmark we ought to be using. We were a bit envious of the right-wing churches (e.g. televangelists, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or the Catholics of old) which could command a 10% donation to the church itself. Our denomination had a much lower donation rate.

As a free-thinking community, we couldn’t imagine that our members would ever drop all their loyalties to other organisations and make their donations solely to our church. But, as free-thinkers, that diversity seemed like something to embrace rather than fight. This is where the idea of expanding the benchmark to include donations to all organisations came from. There was a current thread of belief that our purpose as a church community was to help people achieve their own spiritual and community goals, not to impose ourselves as the primary goal. (And if that idea resonates with you, maybe you should check out your local Unitarian-Universalist church.)

We started off counting as part of the tithe only “charitable” donations, in the sense of tax-deductible donations to our church or 501(c)3 organisations. But we realised that this allowed the tax laws to constrain what we celebrated as worthy. The important thing was to encourage people to make a difference in the world. Some acts of generosity, such as donations to political candidates, could be real forces for good (however each of us defined “good”). On reflection, it actually wasn’t very spiritually or morally important to recognise people’s attempts to be more tax-efficient. From this came our inclusive definition of what contributions counted. The original, UUCPA-specific wording included gifts “to some combination of the UUCPA operating pledge, building fund, other charities, and political groups that enact your values.”

One important source of ideas was the book, Fundraising with a Vision, by Edward B. Landreth (1997). Published by the Unitarian Universalist Assocation, now apparently out of print, but available used on Amazon, this book gave us the idea of  “supporting” and “sustaining” gift levels, defined in terms of income percentages that became progressively larger for higher incomes, which we adapted and used at UUCPA in 2002. But our most agressive “sustaining” gift level, for a high, $150,000 annual income, was still only 5.5% to the church. It fell well short of a tithe. Part of the motivation for the Social Justice Tithe was to set a target which our members would find both more motivating and more demanding than the “sustaining” gift levels we adapted from Landreth.

Landreth’s book also had a notion of a “fair gross income”. I found it fascinating for what it said about the funds our denomination had on and off the table  when it came to targeting church donations. “Fair gross income” started with Adjusted Gross Income as reported on line 31 of the US IRS Form 1040; of course we all (or our accountants) would have a Form 1040 on hand. It added back in forms of income which the US treats as non-taxable, e.g. tax-exempt pensions and annuities, tax-free income, and depreciation and rental property; we would expect many of us to have such tax-advantaged assets.  It deducted some major expenses, e.g. major medical expenses, costs of education, of parent care, and of child care. Enacting values is one thing, but apparently our denomination didn’t want anyone competing for the household education fund. For the Social Justice Tithe, we stuck with a simple statement of “income”.

Related ideas

In writing this note, I was curious to see if any others had independently come up with a similar definition of Social Justice Tithe.  Surprisingly, no, at least not visibly in a casual web search.

The idea of the Social Justice Tithe appears to live on, in fundraising at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, though under a new name “liberal tithe”, in their 2012 “Canvass brochure”.

An outfit called the Center for Economic and Social Justice uses the term “tithing” in connection with “Social Justice” to mean a gift of time and effort, rather than money, to effect change in organisations and institutions.

A person named Josh Morgan wrote a blog post, Social Justice Tithing, in 2010. It struggles to reconcile a sense of obligation to tithe, derived from a Christian church tradition, with a reluctance to limit all that generosity to the church institution. He ends up close to our notion of a “social justice tithe”, I think.

A newly-published book, Giving Back: Discover your values and put them into action through volunteering and donating, by Steven P. Ketchpel, and available on Amazon, has a section on How much to give. He lists the tithe as a benchmark, exploring its Jewish as well as Christian roots. He also lists “average-based guidelines”, which are based on how much the US public currently donates. His subtitle reference to “putting [your values] into action” resonates with the ideas that led to the Social Justice Tithe.

Ketchpel also has an interesting case for defining tithing in terms of post-tax net income, as opposed to pre-tax gross income. Since post-tax income is smaller, a post-tax tithe is a lower hurdle to clear. “Choosing to tithe on the basis of your income after taxes is… equivalent to assuming that about 10 percent of your tax bill goes to the types of social spending that would have been supported by churches or other nonprofits in another era.” We didn’t think of that angle.

Overall, I’m impressed by the book; it would have done me a world of good 10 or 20 years ago, as I was starting to realise how fulfilling generosity could be. I met Ketchpel quite by coincidence earlier this year. With this blog post, I hope to add the Social Justice Tithe to his portfolio of benchmarks for how much to give.

As I write, fireworks are lofting up (from residential sidewalks, yikes) to celebrate the new year. As you decide how you want to focus your generosity on making the world a better place — however your values lead you to understand “better” — I hope the idea of a Social Justice Tithe provides you with a useful benchmark.