Humanitarian Aid and Tithing

After being troubled about the definition of Tithing and the use of Humanitarian Aid, I took a serious look into this about a year ago, and changed the way I donate money and who it goes to. Here is the thought process I went through, and what I found through this.

The question of humanitarian aid and tithing is a really interesting one. The strict LDS interpretation is obviously that you should pay 10% gross income (net if you’re liberal leaning) in tithing, although there is a growing movement of people who calculate tithing based on ‘surplus’, which is the way tithing was originally defined in the 19th century. From discussions I’ve had online, admitting paying on surplus income has been problematic in temple recommend interviews for lots of people, but not for others. The leadership lottery is in full swing.

The use of humanitarian aid is a matter of debate, mainly because financial information is so guarded. In 2009 the church released a ‘Welfare Fact Sheet’ with details and figures regarding the humanitarian aid programme. It has since been replaced on the LDS website with a 2011 fact sheet which is less detailed. Someone saved the original thankfully: http://sdrv.ms/1i6pfJq

The replacement 2011 Welfare Fact Sheet is here:  http://bit.ly/M8NsTZ

There are a few things we can gather from this. The first is that the increase in total value of assistance from 2009-11 is $200m, suggesting that the total value of humanitarian assistance is currently around $100m per year. The second thing is that using the 2009 sheet, the cash donations are about 27% of the total donations. Using this figure (even though it’s very rough) we can estimate that the church is currently spending under $30m per year on cash donations to humanitarian causes – less than $2 per member. The material assistance is significant, but the donations more than likely simply help to run the programme and the figure seems to be a number plucked out of the air to place a value on the material assistance rendered.

The following link (http://bit.ly/Lj6Nll) is to a list of the top humanitarian projects that the church got involved with in 2011. As I look through this list, I was surprised how small this assistance is. For example, in Japan, 250 tons of supplies were distributed. This is around 10 Lorry loads going to a major disaster and the number 1 recipient that year. The most significant assistance throughout are volunteers, which is commendable, but costs nothing. This has led some to speculate that the equivalent financial value of volunteer assistance is included in the total monetary figure. We’ll never really know.

Lastly, using UK accounts (Which are indexed here: http://bit.ly/1jDKg10), we can see what the total Humanitarian aid donations have been in the UK over the last 4-5 years. Obviously the figure varies, but it is generally around £400,000 per year. With more than 190,000 members in the UK, this averages out at around £2 per member per year, which is about $3.40 per member. Based on the total donations we saw earlier, if we extrapolate this per member donation over the whole church we get just over $50m per year in donations. Given the fact that the value of materials will be less than the cost of providing them and the church could be including the value of volunteers in the total figure, it’s very possible that the church does not supplement the humanitarian aid programme with additional funds at all.

The programme clearly does some good, but the extent of that good is somewhat clouded. Following the Tsunami in Asia on 26th December 2004, the church issued a statement that was read in sacrament meetings urging donations to the humanitarian aid fund. This statement said that “100%” of donations received would go directly to those in need. There has been an accusation that this didn’t happen, but UK financial accounts from 2004 and 2005 are not available anymore. A brief look at the 2008-10 accounts show that over those years, the humanitarian aid donations in the UK were allowed to accumulate with only a tiny fraction used at all. The total figure reached almost £3m at the end of 2010 when the entire balance was transferred to SLC. This figure could potentially have gone back as far as 2004, although we’ll never really know. The fact that British donations are not used as stated and simply sat in a bank account for years would be a bit of a shock to some members. Adding this issue to the elephant in the financial room of the church (City Creek Mall), and I have a hard time feeling that the church is honest at all with its finances. The bottom line is that City Creek cost an estimated $2bn and the total value of all humanitarian assistance over a 27 year period is less than this really rankled with me then, and still does.

For me, the contrast between the church and other aid organisations was stark. There is a strange notion amongst some members that external charities are dishonest and not worth supporting, but in the church we have a pure organisation that uses every cent in the right way. As I researched this, I was struck by how much I felt the converse was true. A lot of the information we have about church finances and donations are clouded. This is the exact opposite of organisations like Oxfam. A brief look at their finances (http://bit.ly/1b02NiZ) shows that the after the cost of fundraising activities, Oxfam are usually left with 92% of the money they have collected, which can then be used for the charitable aims of the organisation. To raise close to £300m in a year and keep 92% of that for aid is incredible. I found similar figures when I researched Doctors without Borders, Amnesty International, Shelter and NSPCC. After doing this research I made the hard decision to donate my money to organisations that are open, transparent and focussed on causes that I feel strongly about. The charities I chose are Amnesty, Shelter, Doctors without Borders, Gavi Alliance, NSPCC and Make a Wish foundation.

Back to the original question of tithing and humanitarian aid. Only the individual can decide what constitutes a full tithe. Lots of members and local leaders will weigh in with their opinion, but the statement by the First Presidency in the handbook says that people have no authority to define tithing for others:

“The simplest statement we know of is the statement of the Lord himself, namely, that the members of the Church should pay ‘one tenth of all their interest annually,’ which is understood to mean income. No one is justified in making any other statement than this.” (First Presidency letter, 19 March 1970.)

The temple recommend and tithing settlement question simply asks whether you consider yourself to be a full tithe payer. You simply define tithing how you wish and how you are comfortable. I didn’t feel right knowing that all the charitable donations I could afford to make were going solely to the church. This led me to define tithing as 10% of surplus to the church, whilst donations to the other charities make my total outgoings in this area in the region of 10% of my net income. I was happy with this then and still am now.