Larry Burkett, the late co-founder of Crown Financial Ministries, was a pioneer in applying Christian principles to personal and business financial management. His impact on how Christians view debt, work, saving, investing, giving, and retirement planning is still felt today through his 70-plus books and ongoing radio ministry. Larry believed strongly that a person cannot out give God.
Charles Spurgeon, the great 19th century preacher said, "In all of my years of service to my Lord, I have discovered a truth that has never failed and has never been compromised. That truth is that it is beyond the realm of possibilities that one has the ability to out give God. Even if I give the whole of my worth to Him, He will find a way to give back to me much more than I gave."
Scripture is chocked full of examples of generous giving. On his return from a victorious battle, Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils to Melchizedek, King of Salem (Genesis 14:19-20). The Children of Israel responded abundantly to Moses' call for gifts to build the Tabernacle (Exodus 36:6). David enthusiastically gave his own personal treasures to construct the Temple (1Chronicles 29:3-5).
In the Old Testament, the Israelites were commanded to bring their gifts to the Lord's storehouse where the Levites would use it for worship and caring for widows, orphans, and the poor. All the required offerings throughout the year totaled about 23 percent of a person's income, not just 10 percent.
New Testament giving is not based on a percentage, but rather on the principle of generosity. God owns it all, and we are simply managers of the resources He has entrusted to our care. If we give sparingly, we will reap sparingly. When we give generously, God promises to open the windows of heaven and pour out His blessings (Malachi 3:10).
Businesses and Giving
Larry Burkett challenged Christian business owners to glorify God in every aspect of their business. To him, businesses served five basic functions: 1) evangelizing, 2) discipling, 3) funding God's work, 4) providing for needs, and 5) generating profits. On the topic of businesses and tithing, Larry believed that it was similar to personal tithing. Since the vast majority of people in biblical times were employed in agriculture, most of the scriptural references to giving are connected with business activity and income. "Honor the Lord with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce" (Proverbs 3:9).
Business owners face unique questions about how to give. Do I tithe on my gross profit or net income? Should I give God partial ownership in my company so He prospers as the business grows? How should I manage giving and business debt? There is no single formula to calculate how much a business should give to charity. As general guidelines, Larry counseled business owners to give from profit after overhead expenses, employees' salaries, and creditors have been paid.
Nonprofits Giving Back
Some nonprofit leaders take the position that since Christians give, and Christian businesses give, then it only stands to reason that Christian ministries should also give. Yet, this logic doesn't extend to nonprofits as easily as it might seem. For example, some would say that churches need to tithe, but what does that really mean? The church I attend has an extensive budget that includes worship, operations, programs that serve the church family, outreach to the local community, benevolence, and global missions. Each church has a unique process for determining what to allocate for internal ministries verses external outreach. What percent of a church budget should be considered a tithe? Isn't the entire budget dedicated to the Lord? Isn't paying the electric bill just as important as purchasing Gospel tracts?
The discussion seems similar when we consider nonprofit organizations. Should your ministry give a portion of your budget to the Lord's work? That sounds good, but isn't 100 percent of your budget already dedicated to advancing the Kingdom to your particular target audience? If you believe that a nonprofit organization should give because God will bless you in a special way, why stop at 10 percent?
Donors who give to your nonprofit expect that 100 percent of their gift will be used to support your mission. If you choose to tithe, where would you direct the funds? Would you give to a church? That seems problematic. Would you only give to other similar agencies? What if you choose an organization that your donors don't believe in? Would they quit supporting you if they knew that a portion of their gift ultimately supported another organization that they don't like? Their reason for not liking the other organization doesn't have to be doctrinal or philosophical. Maybe they don't like the director, or maybe they simply aren't interested in that particular cause.
Mutual Funds vs. Individual Stocks
Most Christians tithe to their local church and give to parachurch ministries. In practical terms this means that donors rank their church contributions at the top of their giving priority with all other charities falling somewhere down the list based on the donor's interests. Think of the donor's selection process as the difference between investing in mutual funds or individual stocks. When you invest with a mutual fund, you are relying on the financial acumen of the fund manager to diversify your money for the best possible return. When you purchase an individual stock, you are putting all your eggs in one basket hoping that your insight, or that great tip you got at work, will pay off.
Giving to a local church is like mutual fund investing. A part of my gift supports local outreach and a portion supports several international ministries. I don't have to vet all of the missionaries or mission projects to determine whether I approve, I simply trust that my church leadership is making wise stewardship decisions to investigate the outside organizations it supports. My gift to my church accomplishes a lot more than my gift to any particular ministry because it is spread over multiple organizations that use a variety of methods to reach people groups all around the world.
Giving to a nonprofit is like investing in a single company. Buying individual stocks can be a very profitable. There's a chance that the company you select might invent an incredible widget and earn an astronomical return on your investment. On the other hand, it might go bankrupt, and you could lose everything. As an investor, the burden is on you to perform due diligence and make wise choices. The advantage of giving to one ministry is that you can focus on reaching a particular target group with a concentrated strategy.
When a nonprofit decides to give to other nonprofits, in a sense they become mutual fund managers. You are deciding for your donors how to spend a portion of their gift that is not directly connected to your ministry. As a donor, I'm writing a check because I want to support the impact your organization is making. If I wanted to support the organization that you choose for me, I would give to them directly.
The biblical instructions about tithing and giving primarily apply to individuals. Business owners may choose to tithe their income, but a nonprofit ministry should not view giving from the same perspective. There is one critical difference — nonprofit organizations don't earn income, you are merely stewards of the gifts someone has entrusted to your care to accomplish your mission. When you look at nonprofit tithing from a donor's perspective, it doesn't make sense to give something away that isn't really yours.
Ron Haas is vice president of the Timothy Group in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.