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Whether you have very little, or significant financial resources, the question about how much to give to charity is an important one – and a question I’m asked all the time. Today, I want to share two principles that I’ve seen adopted by those who find giving meaningful and experience a lot of joy from the process. Here they are.

Give generously

Generosity is an aspiration. The challenge with being generous is that there are no rules of the game. I’ve met many Canadians who want to be generous, but have no idea what that might look like. “Any gift is generous,” I’ve heard some say. I would disagree. A voluntary gift may be altruistic, but it’s not necessarily generous.

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Consider that for a moment. Suppose a person earns $5-million this year, to add to the $10-million they already have, and decides to donate $1,000 to a worthy cause. Generous? Definitely not. What about a $10,000 donation? Hardly. A $50,000 donation? Not really.

So, what is it about a gift that makes it generous? The answer lies in one important word: sacrifice. An elderly woman who I knew many years ago once said to me, “Tim, I won’t make a donation that costs me nothing.” Clearly, a $1,000 donation for some is a tremendous sacrifice, while that same donation for others won’t be.

Some religions have well-established approaches to giving. Those of the Christian and Jewish faiths will be familiar with the concept of the tithe, which suggests that giving 10 per cent of income should be the standard. In our example above, a tithe would amount to $500,000 (10 per cent of the $5-million earned this year). Zakat in the Muslim faith is an obligation to give based on financial resources and is customarily 2.5 per cent of savings and wealth, and would amount to $375,000 in our example above on assets of $15-million.

Not everyone has a faith background. From my experience, however, the most generous givers are those who find the most joy in giving – regardless of income level – and they’ll often give about 10 per cent of income annually. I’ve met some who give even more. But here’s a practical suggestion: If you’re not accustomed to giving, start with between 1 per cent and 2 per cent of your income annually. As you feel more comfortable, try increasing that percentage.

In the end, the only person who can determine what’s truly generous for you, is you. But the guiding principle here is that if you give until you feel it, you’ll experience greater joy and meaning in your giving. Want to give more? Gain inspiration from these websites: givingwhatwecan.org, givingpledge.org and ilikegiving.com. (Note: These are British and U.S. websites respectively, so make sure your gifts are to Canadian charities if your income is from Canadian sources.)

Give cheerfully

If giving generously, or sacrificially, is one bookend in the conversation around how much to give, giving cheerfully is the other. If you’ve given a sum of money that leaves you panic-stricken, miserable or resentful, then you’ve given too much. Giving grudgingly or under compulsion shouldn’t be your motivation. You need to feel a sense of gladness about your gift. And if you’re not used to giving much, then start out small – that 1 per cent or 2 per cent of your income I spoke about. Something is better than nothing. Then increase your giving as you become more confident.

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Giving cheerfully is a lot like taking a hot bath. You start by dipping your toe in, until if feels a little more comfortable, then you go a little deeper. Over time, you’ll very likely come to the recognition that you can afford to give more, and make a greater impact, than you ever thought you could.

Giving generously and cheerfully should start with a plan. Decide how much you’ll give each year, then decide how much of that budget you’ll set aside for ad hoc giving (gifts that may be unexpectedly requested throughout the year) and how much will be strategically donated to causes you believe in.

Tim Cestnick, FCPA, FCA, CPA(IL), CFP, TEP, is an author, and co-founder and CEO of Our Family Office Inc. He can be reached at tim@ourfamilyoffice.ca.

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