Religious Roots of Charity

By Jo Ann Manuccia, Deputy Director of Prospect Research at University of California San Diego

Those of us in prospect development strive to identify what motivates our donors to be philanthropic. Isn't that the essential component of understanding, engaging and stewarding a donor? I recently had the chance to delve into how donors’ religious beliefs influence why they give and what types of programs they support outside of their religious organizations. 

We've learned that many of our donors give because throughout their lives, they were taught the values of their faith and the importance of giving back to the community. As a prospect researcher, I was tasked with finding a meaningful way to steward one of our generous donors, and in the process, I became captivated by the Jewish communal traditions that so many of our donors have clearly embraced in fulfilling their philanthropic goals. In full disclosure, I am not Jewish, and I don't work at a faith-based organization — I'm Catholic and work at a public university — so I approached this project in an attempt to help my colleagues gain a better understanding of our donor base. Here are brief highlights of several fundamental teachings that I shared with my colleagues. 

The Torah is the foundation of Jewish religious life, and as such, mandates a moral and ethical code in relationships with others. In addition to showing compassion and benevolence toward others, some of the guiding principles from Jewish tradition and teachings have motivated our donors to give to specific areas on campus that inspire a sense of decency, fairness and social justice to benefit all of society. Besides supporting the myriad needs across campus, many of our donors support programs that facilitate diversity of thought, the exchange of differing views in a civil, respectful manner in order to learn from one another, and approaching discourse in an effort to uncover truth together. In seeking this dialogue with others, they hope to bring peace, freedom and justice to the world. 


Tzedakah, the Hebrew word for the acts that we call "charity" in English, is different from the idea of charity or benevolence. The word tzedakah is derived from the Hebrew root Tzadei-Dalet-Qof, meaning righteousness, justice or fairness. It is a commandment (mitzvah) to narrow the gap between the affluent and the poor, to pursue peace, to protect the Earth, etc. It can be fulfilled by giving money to the poor, to educational or health care institutions or to synagogues. Giving tzedakah is a traditional way to commemorate special occasions and life events — in honor of weddings, new babies, bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah celebrations, or any event in life and death that should be commemorated with hope and tradition.  

Repairing the World

Tikkun Olam (“repairing the world”) has come to connote social action and the pursuit of social justice. It is an effort to seek dialogue and joint action with people of other faiths in the hope that together we can bring peace, freedom and justice to our world. 

For more articles on the research behind donor behaviors, read the article “Patients and Fundraising: All for the Social Good” by Andillon Hackney.

Civility, Manners and Common Decency

Derech eretz literally means “the way of the land” or behaving in a civil, responsible, respectful and ethical way toward others. This sense of decency or common courtesy assumes that all of us are part of the same social fabric. Judaism believes that human decency precedes all other teachings in the Torah, as it is crucial to the existence of humanity. 

Civil Discourse

This ideal of civility is carried into conflicts or disagreements. In Jewish tradition, constructive conflict is known as machloket l’shem shamayim. Loosely translated, it means “a dispute for the sake of heaven,” a healthy, constructive form of disagreement that will ultimately lead to a lasting solution and a preservation of the relationship. This particular kind of disagreement forms the foundation of the Jewish view of civil dialogue: argument for the purpose of finding truth together. 

The Talmud lists literally thousands of machlokot, conflicts or disagreements among the rabbis. The rabbis saw engaging in machloket as a critical part of uncovering truth. The key is to engage in machloket in a constructive way – one that preserves the relationship. Rabbi Laura Abrasley of Temple Shalom in Newton, Massachusetts, states, “Civil discourse … depends on the ability to constructively communicate your ideas using integrity, compromise and humility. When we do this, we do not seek destruction of the opponent, but the closest version of the truth through facts, analysis, reasoning and listening to solve problems and accomplish goals.” 

Obviously, these Jewish traditions and teachings are also fundamental beliefs among the major religions. His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama once said, “Only the development of compassion and understanding for others can bring us the tranquility and happiness we seek.” Philanthropist Denny Sanford, who recently pledged $100 million to the University of California San Diego for the study of empathy and compassion, shared what motivated him to make such a transformational gift, “Civility is based upon shared respect, and when civility is lacking so too are fundamental tools required to build respect, such as empathy and compassion. There is no social contract without compassion and no compassion without understanding. We cannot look at others and just see other.” 

During the process of searching for a way to steward our donor, I began to better understand how religious traditions and fundamental beliefs can influence a donor’s philanthropic focus. As I learned more about this particular donor’s giving history over the years, it became clear that she was committed to civil discourse, social justice and education. Then, when I read a long-forgotten interview in which she stated that she lived by the commandment of Tikkun Olam, I knew our stewardship efforts would include that which is most meaningful to her – repairing the world – a guiding principle for all of us to follow. In our quest to learn about donor motivation, let us not forget these basic principles that mandate us to be compassionate, civil and respectful toward one another and inspire so many to put their faith into action.

Do you want more information on what motivates donors? This session on collective giving explores  philanthropy as a team sport. 






Reform Judaism: Modern Statement of Principles 

What is Derech Eretz? 

Derech Eretz – A Torah guide to proper behavior in everyday life. Rabbi Shaul Wagschal (The Judaica Press, 2012)

“Machlokhet L’Shem Shamayim: the Art of Jewish Civil Discourse,” Rabbi Laura Abrasley (at Rosh Hashanah 5779 morning services (Sept. 10, 2018)

“Commentary: Why UCSD is getting $100 million for study of empathy, compassion.” T. Denny Sanford, The San Diego Union-Tribune (July 25, 2019) 

“Psychology For Democracy (Part I), We must learn to argue for the sake of democracy.” Pamela B. Paresky, PhD, Psychology Today (March 24, 2018) 

“Why Give? Religious Roots of Charity.” Harvard Divinity School (November 26, 2018) 

“Why is Charity So Important in Islam?” Zakat Foundation of America

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