There’s nothing in the Bible to indicate Jesus was an especially good tipper.
But for eight months, the anonymous person behind the TipsForJesus Instagram and Facebook accounts has left 250 to 600 percent of his bills at steakhouses, resort bars and restaurants, predominately in the Phoenix, New York and Los Angeles areas.
As Christians around the world prepare to celebrate the central mysteries of their faith this weekend, ethicists, charity experts and servers around the country ponder slightly smaller Christian mysteries: How effective and moral is this kind of giving? And where might this tipper show up next?
The TipsForJesus diner typically leaves $2,500 to $7,000, documenting his largesse on Instagram with 81 photos of signed receipts and closeups of smiling servers.
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Tabs are paid for with what is likely an American Express Centurion Card, the black card whose balance must be paid monthly. Copy cats have started tagging their own big tips with #TipsForJesus. But the original tipper, rumored to be former PayPal vice president Jack Selby, who has a home in Paradise Valley, pays with a card ending in 7005 and leaves the most money.
Americans donate about $300 billion a year to charities, about a third of which goes to religious communities and the rest to domestic non-profits, according to Tom Pollack of the National Center for Charitable Statistics at the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute in Washington D.C.
No organization keeps track of the kind of interpersonal charity TipsForJesus represents. And while peer-to-peer charity is on the rise through sites like GoFundMe.com, there’s no conclusive data on its scope.
When a well-dressed man walked into Bar Crudo in Phoenix and spent $530.67 on food and drink, it was co-owner Micah Olson who earned the $2,500 tip. Olson split it with the other bartender on shift that December Tuesday.
“I bought my girlfriend a TV for Christmas,” Olson said with a laugh. “And then, I’m planning on giving 10 percent to C-CAP (a youth culinary charity) and pay it forward.
(Forbes magazine advises those who receive a windfall to save six months of living expenses, pay off high-interest debt, and put some in retirement savings.)
“It feels like you’re floating on cloud nine; you just got paid for a week in one night for doing basically nothing. I didn’t feel like I should give it all to charity; he made it seem like it was for me specifically.”
Olson got so much press that people came in for months asking “Why doesn’t (the tipper) he go to Denny’s?” or somewhere servers presumably need the tips more.
“And I’m like, would you go to a Denny’s if you had money? No,” Olson said. “There’s many kinds of charity, you know?”
The average Valley server earns about $20,000 annually. At the places TipsForJesus has visited — Bar Crudo, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Jade Bar at Sanctuary Camelback Mountain — servers make $35,000 to $55,000, according to industry estimates.
On the TipsForJesus Instagram photos and on its Facebook page, thousands of comments praise the tipper, invite him to restaurants, and excoriate him for giving thousands of dollars to specific, likely middle-class workers when others have more acute needs.
But judging a person’s charity is complex. Sandra Miniutti, vice president of marketing for Charity Navigator, said people should assess charities and charitable acts according to their measurable outcomes, financial efficiency and sustainability, and accountability and transparency.
“So, on efficiency, this would score fairly high,” said Miniutti, who is also the chief financial officer at the charity-assessment website. “The server provided a service and then they got a huge tip... bypassing the charity middleman.”
But in terms of accountability and deliverables this kind of giving fails.
“I like the spirit in which he’s giving,” Miniutti said. “Taking care of each other in the community. The downside is, there’s no vetting and there’s no guarantee in how the money will be used.”
In other words, it’s not that different than handing $5 to someone standing by the freeway with a “Will Work For Food” sign.
Ethicist Peter Singer believes the most moral act is to save as many lives as possible per dollar.
A professor of bioethics at Princeton University, Singer is the pragmatist who pointed out in a December Washington Post op-ed that every Make-A-Wish dollar spent on the 5-year-old San Francisco leukemia survivor known as Batkid would’ve been better spent fighting poverty in Africa.
“It’s proven time and time again that donations go furthest when we give to impoverished people in developing countries,” Singer said in a Skype interview.
Singer runs TheLifeYouCanSave.com, which lists charities he and his team have evaluated as doing the most good per dollar, such as those that protect people from parasitic worms and malaria, and that provide resources to deliver clean water or repair obstetric fistulas.
“We have an obligation to do the most good with the resources we have, and just because we can’t see these people or we don’t know them personally doesn’t remove that obligation,” he said.
Singer said his assessment of the donations by TipsForJesus is measured against his wealth, because be believes those with the most resources are morally obligated to donate them most efficiently.
For example,it is not as important that the average American donates her money efficiently, as it is that Bill Gates, the world’s richest man, donates his money efficiently. His billions can save more lives than the average person’s thousands.
“Not that your money doesn’t matter, but it doesn’t matter as much,” Singer said.
When Kenneth Stern, was writing “With Charity for All: Why Charities Are Failing and a Better Way to Give,” he came across the story of a man who donated $1 million to a New York City hospital to fund the free distribution of Viagra.
“That was what was important to this man, so that’s how he donated his money. It’s very hard to judge that. I mean, you can judge the effectiveness of it as an efficient, useful and fair way of distributing money. But people give charitably for all sorts of reasons.”
Stern, formerly the CEO of NPR, said people give because it makes them feel good to help a person or organization that impacted their lives.
“There’s tons of selfishness in giving; they call it warm glow,” he said. “But that’s OK, it’s still giving.”
Jesus would argue that you should be giving to the poor, said Dean Karlan, an economics professor at Yale University and founder of Innovations for Poverty Action, which tests the effectiveness of social services policies and charity initiatives.
“So this feels gimmicky rather than actively saying, ‘Let’s look to Jesus to guide us in acts of charity,’” Karland said.
TipsForJesus’ giving is personal, Karlan said, predicated, he assumes, on the warm glow that comes from giving to an individual rather than an institution.
“With (Innovations for Poverty Action) we want people to get out the checkbook because of emotional heartstrings, but then they figure out who to write the check to with their minds after seeing the data.”
Bartender Olsonsaid he would donate 10 percent of his tip to a dear cause: Careers through Culinary Arts Program, which trains at-risk youth for skilled hospitality and food-service jobs.
Spokeswoman Kaitlin Stilwell said Olson’s $125 could be used to buy two knife kits for job-training students or eight chefs coats for students to wear while competing, job shadowing and volunteering.
A handful of theories as to why TipsForJesus tips keep popping up among giving experts, even though he’s never commented on his actions.
It could be a statement about server wages, or a model for how the wealthy could connect to those who serve them, or a conversation-starter about how Americans give.
“Usually, when people want to do something good, they have something in mind,” said behavioral sciences and marketing professor Ayelet Gneezy of the University of California-San Diego. “That’s the intriguing part: Why? There is is a pattern but it’s not one you could predict.”
Charity expert Katherina Rosqueta said TipsForJesus likely donates money for a lot of reasons. His philanthropy is expressive, a way to interact with his community and share his values, she said. This is how most Americans practice charity.
As the founding executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania, Rosqueta is philosophical.
“He’s actually participating in two longstanding traditions in philanthropy, expressing gratitude to someone who has helped you, and helping someone ... less fortunate.”
Most Americans have a portfolio of philanthropies, from giving to individuals, to donating to churches, alma maters and hospitals.
“While some may criticize him for not giving to the most urgent need ... few people have 100 percent of their philanthropy focused on the world’s most pressing problems.
“Critics might feel differently if they knew the other aspects of this man’s philanthropy. For example, if 1 percent of his philanthropy went to these tips, but 99 percent went to saving newborn lives in the developing world, would they be as critical?”
TipsForJesus’ Instagram account tagline reads: “Doing the Lord’s work, one tip at a time,” the tipper’s only explicit reference to Christianity.
Jesus focused on the power and use of wealth more than on the practice of prayer, said Dave Summers, pastor of Paradise Valley United Methodist Church. Summers once served as president and CEO of United Way of Monterey County in California and has considered charity practically and spiritually.
“You would see (Jesus) respond individually in his encounters with people to reflect the generosity and abundance of God,” said Summers, mentioning the New Testament stories of Jesus turning water into wine, multiplying the loaves and fishes and healing those who came to him. “Jesus asks us, how responsive will we be to the needs in front of us? How responsive will we be to the prompting of God?”
Then again, charities as we know them didn’t exist in Jesus’ time. But instead of debating interpersonal charity v. non-profit-facilitated charity, Summers encourages looking at TipsForJesus as an inspiring example of “extravagant generosity.”
“Is there a place in your life where you could practice such extravagant generosity?” he asks. “This week, on Easter, we’re seeing that in the example of Jesus’ life, his sacrifice was extravagant.”