Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: donation from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(15c) :the act or an instance of donating: as a : the making of a gift esp. to a charity or public institution b : a free contribution :gift


Summary Article: Charity, Duty of
from Encyclopedia of Business Ethics and Society

Charity is the act of giving something of value, usually money, physical property, or time, to a worthy cause or to a person or people in need. Generally, charity is extended to those whom the giver views as less fortunate or those whose cause the individual considers worthy of receiving charity. People living in chronic poverty; people suffering from disease, abuse, or other misfortune; and victims of crime or natural disaster are sometimes viewed as especially deserving of charity. Likewise, those who are unable to care for themselves or who are perceived as vulnerable are also viewed as highly deserving of charity. People with physical, mental, or cognitive challenges; children; the elderly; animals—particularly endangered species; and the physical environment may also be perceived as needing charity from those who are in a position to help.

Some social theories posit that the duty of charity is part of the social contract that allows individuals to live together in relative harmony. Each person helps others in times of adversity, knowing that their good deeds will be reciprocated when, and if, necessary. In this regard, charity is a form of social insurance in which a person gives so that others will give to them at appropriate and beneficial times. This utilitarian view of charity may be seen in some traditional cultures. For example, the Japanese tanomoshi, Chinese hui, Korean kye, and Filipino paluwagan have been organized for centuries to provide their members with access to financial assistance to start or expand businesses, provide marriage dowries, pay for funerals, discharge debts, or meet other expenses for a particular member. These are essentially loan clubs or mutual-benefit societies, where each member deposits a specific amount of money according to a predetermined schedule. At regularly scheduled meetings, members bid on the monies currently available in the kitty. The bids represent the amount of interest the interested members are willing to pay to use the funds for a specific period of time. Those with an immediate need for the money are encouraged to make high bids so that they will receive immediate funding. The highest bid receives the whole proceeds from the kitty; the bidder agrees to pay back the face value plus the interest he or she has bid, by the end of the loan period. The interest is equally distributed among the rest of the group. The group's organizer or convener, who has absolute control over membership of the group, establishes the amount each member is obligated to contribute, determines the deposit and repayment schedules, agrees to cover any losses in the event that a borrower defaults, and usually receives the first distribution of funds, interest free. What makes this different from other kinds of investments is the lack of credit checks, promissory notes, or any other form of documentation. These mutual-benefit circles operate on an honor system, in which agreements are verbal rather than written. Generally, loan amounts are likely to be far smaller than those that might be sought from banks or other for-profit institutions; loans might be used for expenses that for-profit institutions might perceive as poor risks.

Historically, it has been considered a social duty and a moral obligation of the affluent social classes to provide charity to the poor, the sick, the indigent, and others in chronic or acute need. Thus, charity has taken many forms, from cash contributions to charitable organizations, financial endowments of schools and other facilities, to performing many kinds of volunteer work. Involvement in charity work was based on the knowledge that there were others less fortunate than the benefactors and the awareness that those who are more affluent, better educated, or in a higher social class have a specific obligation to behave charitably toward those with fewer resources or a lower social standing.

While charity is considered a duty in secular society, it is neither absolute nor enforceable. The social contract does not obligate people to give at all costs. The duty of charity should not place an intolerable burden on a person. In his 1972 article, philosopher Peter Singer stated that it is a moral responsibility for those who have the means to contribute resources to those in need, especially if doing so does not create an undue burden on the giver. Sometimes, it is morally impossible to fulfill the charitable obligation—individuals cannot give what they do not have. People are not expected to practice financial or resource-based charity when doing so compromises their own or their families’ survival, nor are they obliged to perpetrate immoral or illegal acts in the name of charity. Similar to there being no absolute duty of charity in secular society, the duty of charity cannot be enforced. For the most part, secular society has no mechanism to punish citizens who choose not to practice charity.

In some societies, the individual duty of charity has been collectivized and delegated to government. Governments develop taxation policies in which individuals and businesses are expected to pay some portion of their earnings to the government, in the form of income tax. These funds are combined and then redistributed to those members of the community who qualify for some kind of assistance. Benefits such as orphan, widow, and elderly pensions; tuition assistance; food and housing subsidies; and medical care are provided by many governments to those citizens who are deemed needy by whatever criteria those governments have put in place. Although the payment of taxes by those who owe them is not generally viewed as an instance of charitable giving, the political redistribution of taxpayer revenue may have effects on the recipient that are similar to the receipt of a charitable gift.

In the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, charity is the basis for moral behavior. These faith communities equate charity with mercy and love, teaching adherents that every other virtue relies to some degree on charitable behavior. Forgiveness, which is an integral part of each of the Abrahamic faiths, is perceived as an act of charity from a person who has been wronged toward a person who has injured the one who forgives. Charity is an individual, enforceable duty and a form of ministry through which observant Jews, Christians, and Muslims may express their faith. In these faiths, the duty of charity is both absolute and enforceable because God commands each Jew, Christian, and Muslim to forgive wrongdoings as they would like their mistakes forgiven.

Charity is one of the principal tenets of Judaism. Jewish theology equates charity with mercy and graciousness. It is expressed by the Hebrew word yadid, combining two Hebrew characters—yad (hand) with dod (loved one). The definition of charity within Jewish religious teaching is extending the hand of friendship to another for the mutual benefit of both. Charity is a mitzvah (plural mitzvoth)—a commandment, good, or source of joy—which blesses both the giver and the recipient. Mitzvoth are pleasing to God and beneficial to the world at large. Judaism emphasizes mitzvoth as a way to achieve self-improvement by putting the needs of others ahead of one's own.

Jewish religious practice offers many opportunities for mitzvoth. A charity box is found at the door of many synagogues. Contributing to the charity box on entering the synagogue to pray, or seeing others doing so, reminds the giver to pray for those in need. There are special mitzvoth to be gained by Jews who perform acts of charity at certain times throughout the Jewish religious year: during Pesach (Passover), on Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish calendar, and during the Feast of Purim, which celebrates Esther's intervention in a plot to assassinate innocent Jews. Additionally, many observant Jews observe the custom of Kapparot, ritual sacrifice in preparation for Yom Kippur; couples who are marrying or families who have lost a loved one may make contributions to their synagogue or to a favorite charity as a way of fulfilling the traditional obligation of charity at these times. While monetary donations are common during these times, gifts of food or needed material goods to the poor are equally valued as mitzvoth. Jewish teaching also advocates tithing, wherein 10% of one's earnings is given to charity. The tithe should be paid before any other financial obligations are met, in keeping with the first fruits teaching found in the Bible in Deuteronomy, Chapter 14.

The duty of charity follows observant Jews into their roles as business owners if those businesses are sole proprietorships or privately held corporations. It is not clear that the duty of charity extends to their roles as officers of publicly traded corporations. As corporate officers, their primary duty is to act as agents of the shareholders; as such, Jewish corporate officers may practice giving from corporate profits only when directed to do so by shareholders.

Like Jewish teaching, Christian theology advises believers to tithe. Charity is viewed by theologians as the root of Christianity, with the ultimate act of charity being Jesus’ death on the cross to redeem mankind's sins. Throughout Christian wisdom literature, the terms charity, mercy, and love are often used interchangeably. In the Christian view of community, individuals are interdependent; each is required to work for the safety, growth, and well-being of all. This view is expressed in the Great Commandment given by Jesus to his followers—to love God with all one's heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love one's neighbor as oneself. This is the first and most basic teaching of Christianity.

Regarding charity, both the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions identify specific charitable acts that faithful Christians are obligated to perform when the need arises. These are called the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. These charitable behaviors are intended to meet the physiological, security, and belonging needs of those who cannot meet those needs for themselves. The corporal works of mercy are feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick and imprisoned, ransoming the captive, and burying the dead. The spiritual works of mercy are instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, admonishing sinners, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving wrongs willingly, comforting the afflicted, and praying for the living and the dead. These duties to which all Christians are called have, throughout history, informed the behavior of individuals and groups in establishing hospitals, schools, hospice facilities, homeless shelters and soup kitchens, mental health service centers, spiritual retreat houses, and many other ministries carried out in response to the teaching that charity is the duty of all obedient Christians.

Charity is also one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Called zakat (purification or growth) in Arabic, Islamic charity is based on the teaching that all things belong to God (Allah) and are held by people in trust. One's possessions are purified by setting aside a portion for those in need. This might be viewed as a kind of spiritual pruning action that encourages further growth of one's personal financial resources. Each Muslim calculates his or her own zakat, which might be 1.5 to 2% of one's total capital, depending on the individual's circumstances. In addition to zakat, Islamic teaching on charity includes sadaqa, or voluntary charity. Sadaqa is interpreted much more broadly than simple monetary charity, encompassing the avoidance of wrongdoing and behaviors that may harm others. Simple deeds of neighborliness, such as greeting a neighbor, extending hospitality to guests, and caring for women, children, those who are sick, travelers, and those on religious pilgrimages, are seen as acts of sadaqa.

The practice of waqf (tying up or dedication in Arabic) is also an example of the kind of charity advocated within Islamic teaching. In English, this term might be translated as a bequest, where personal or business assets are used to endow charitable or benevolent activities. Generally, waqf are permanent arrangements—benefactors relinquish the right of ownership over the donated property, and managers of the waqf, called mutawalli, act as agents of Allah, not of the original owner or the charitable organizations that may receive funds from the proceeds of the waqf.

Zakat and sadaqa are distinguished from other forms of charity in the Islamic tradition because the observant Muslim seeks Allah in the performance of charitable acts. Therefore, any acts of charity must be in keeping with Islamic teaching and law. Muslims are expected to perform acts of charity circumspectly, without thought of repayment or recognition. Sadaqa also explicitly excludes uncharitable behavior or intentional wrongdoing. The Prophet Muhammed taught that to receive Allah's charity, faithful Muslims must behave charitably by doing for others what they desire for themselves, contributing to the needs of the poor, dealing honestly in business transactions, caring for animals, and conducting oneself with modesty and circumspection.

There are two major differences between the secular and spiritual aspects of charity. First, secular thought holds that charitable giving involves something of tangible value, such as money, consumer goods, or property. Secular charity further presumes that the giver is more able to give than the receiver may be. While the spiritual perspective recognizes such giving as charitable, it expands the definition of charity to include good deeds that may be extended to an affluent person by a poor one. Second, secular thought views charity as an imperfect duty; that is, people should behave charitably, but choosing not to do so is an acceptable course of action. In the spiritual view, charity is mandatory, not voluntary. People are not coerced into giving, but every person is capable of giving to or serving others and must do so to the degree they are able. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have charity as a prime foundation of their respective faith traditions. While none of the Abrahamic traditions require charity from those who are unable to give, they all state that every person of conscience is capable of giving something, and each should give as much as they are able when circumstances require it.

See also Altruism; Christian Ethics; Corporate Philanthropy; Empathy; Fiduciary Duty; Islamic Ethics; Jewish Ethics; Metaethics; Moral Agency; Normative Ethics; Ought Implies Can; Profit Maximization, Corporate Social Responsibility as; Strategic Corporate Social Responsibility; Utilitarianism; Values, Personal; Welfare Economics

Further Readings
  • Adloff, F. (2015, October). Foundations and the charisma of giving: A historical sociology of philanthropy in Germany and the United States. Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary & Nonprofit Organizations, 26(5), 2002-2022.
  • Arax, M. (1988, October 30). Pooled cash of loan clubs key to Asian immigrant entrepreneurs. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 3, 2015, from http://articles.latimes.com/1988-10-30/local/me-891_1_loan-clubs.
  • Buchanan, A. (1987, April). Justice and charity. Ethics, 97(3), 558-575. doi:10.1086/292866.
  • Feather, J. (2015). Engaging private philanthropy in aging: It's time for a new approach. Generations, 39(3), 68-71.
  • Gallo, M.; Duffy, L. (2016). The rural giving difference: Volunteering as philanthropy in an Irish community organization. Journal of Rural & Community Development, 11(1), 1-15.
  • Goozner, M. (1987, July 19). Age-old tradition bankrolls Koreans. The Chicago Tribune. Retrieved June 8, 2015, from http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1987-07-19/business/8702220832_1_ivan-light-asian-immigrants-korean.
  • Hay, I.; Muller, S. (2014, October). Questioning generosity in the golden age of philanthropy: Towards critical geographies of super-philanthropy. Progress in Human Geography, 38(5), 635-653. doi:10.1177/0309132513500893.
  • His Holiness the Lubavitcher Rebbe. (n.d.). How we can fulfill the final mitzvah of the Torah. Retrieved June 8, 2015, from http://www.chabad.org/therebbe/article_cdo/aid/93608/jewish/How-We-Can-Fulfill-the-Final-Mitzvah-of-the-Torah.htm.
  • Johnson, P. (2005). A glossary of political economy terms: Transfer payment. Retrieved June 8, 2015, from https://www.auburn.edu/~johnspm/gloss/transfer_payment.
  • New International Version Bible. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.biblestudytools.com/niv/.
  • Oxford Islamic Studies Online. (2015). Mutawalli. Retrieved June 8, 2015, from http://oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t125/e1666?_hi=0&_pos=5210.
  • Paluwagan: A Pinoy rotating savings scheme. (2012, June 28). Philippine Online Chronicles. Retrieved June 8, 2015, from http://thepoc.net/index.php/paluwagan-a-pinoy-rotating-savings-scheme/.
  • Parthasarathy, H.; Fishburne, L. (2015, October). Philanthropy's role in translating scientific innovation. Nature Biotechnology, 33(10), 1022-1023. doi:10.1038/nbt.3369.
  • Poyaoan, J. (2013, August 21). How lending circles create community resilience. Retrieved June 8, 2015, from http://www.shareable.net/blog/how-lending-circles-create-community-resilience.
  • Rules regarding waqf. (n.d.). Retrieved June 8, 2015, from http://www.al-islam.org/islamic-laws-ayatullah-ali-al-husayni-al-sistani/rules-regarding-waqf.
  • The Samurai Archives. (2014). Tanomoshi ko. Retrieved June 3, 2015, from http://wiki.samurai-archives.com/index.php?title=Tanomoshi_ko.
  • Schwartz, R. (2015). Jewish practices & rituals: The custom of Kapparot in the Jewish tradition. Retrieved June 8, 2015, from https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/kapparot.html.
  • Singer, P. (1972). Famine, affluence, and morality. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1(1), 229-243.
  • Tanomoshi: Financial secret societies. (n.d.). Retrieved June 3, 2015, from http://www.moiliili.net/Documents/Tanomoshi%20ad.pptx.
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. (2014). Transfer payments. Retrieved June 8, 2015, from http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/rural-economy-population/rural-poverty-well-being/transfer-payments.aspx.
  • Zakat in detail. (n.d.). Retrieved June 8, 2015, from http://www.realislam.com/zakat_in_detail.htm.
  • Cheryl Crozier Garcia
    Copyright © 2018 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

    Related Articles


    Full text Article IN DEFENSE OF PRIVATE GIVING
    The Almanac of American Philanthropy

    “America is Built on Giving” by Adam Meyerson Philanthropic freedom is an indispensable part of political freedom. Adopted from Imprimis, January

    Full text Article Who Gives Most to Charity?
    The Almanac of American Philanthropy

    From Alaskan bush villages to center-city Manhattan, local-scale philanthropy unfolds every day in nearly all American communities. At first glance

    Full text Article Why is Charitable Activity Tax-Protected? (Think Freedom, Not Finances)
    The Almanac of American Philanthropy

    Periodically, some politician seeking increased government revenues will propose to chop down the tax deduction for charitable contributions. Were

    See more from Credo