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Behind each donation, a tangle of reasons
15 November 2005
by Richard A. Friedman, M.D.

If you wanted to test the charitable limits of humanity, you probably could not devise a greater challenge than the disasters of the last four years. Americans have responded with billions of dollars in donations and untold hours of volunteer work.

But as charitable leaders wonder if donors' capacity for giving can keep up, perhaps it's worth asking what makes them run to their checkbooks in the first place.

There is no shortage of theories, but it helps to look - at who gives and how much.

"Research consistently shows that factors like an individual's age, income and level of education strongly predict giving," said Dr. Patrick M. Rooney, director of research at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

Recent data from the Center on Philanthropy Panel Study, which now follows 7,500 American households, reveal that both the likelihood of giving and generosity increase with age. Individuals ages 21 to 40 earning $50,000 to $100,000, for example, gave 1.9 percent of their annual income to charity, while people 65 and older in the same income bracket gave away 4.2 percent of their income. And 92 percent of those 65 years and older made at least some donation, compared with 73 percent of people ages 21 to 40 in this income range.

The very rich, it turns out, are not the most generous. Yes, giving increases with income, up to a point. Households with annual incomes above $100,000 gave less than those earning $50,000 to $100,000. For example, those 65 years and older in the $100,000 to $200,000 income range gave 1.5 percent of their income to charity; but those 65 and older who made $50,000 to $100,000 donated 4.2 percent of their income.

Dr. Rooney said that the common belief that whites were more charitable than minorities was false. Data from the Center on Philanthropy's America Gives study, a survey of 4,200 households just after 9/11, showed that after taking education and income into account, there were no significant differences in giving between whites and other ethnic groups. Sex seems to matter, Dr. Rooney said. Single women were significantly more generous, by a 13 percent margin, than single men, after allowing for income and education.

If these data reveal motivations for giving, they are clearly more than financial calculations. After all, households in the Center on Philanthropy Panel Study whose annual income was less than $50,000 gave as generously as those who made more than $100,000.

Why? Consider first altruism and a sense of moral responsibility. A strong case could certainly be made that since people are social animals, giving to others who are victims of disasters allows us to feel connected to a larger community and assert shared values and beliefs.

But if giving were driven just by moral sensibility, how can inconsistencies like the outpouring of donations after 9/11 or Katrina be explained when compared with the relatively little that has been given to the cause of AIDS or famine in Africa, scourges that dwarf anything seen in this country?

Maybe that is the point. If we can identify with the victim, we are more likely to donate. Americans have little problem imagining themselves flooded out of house and home; but how many can relate to a Pakistani villager?

Don't put all your money on empathy, though; too much can actually inhibit philanthropy. In 1991, Dr. Peter E. Warren at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, tried to increase charitable giving by encouraging empathy with needy people. He sent a letter soliciting donations to a well-known charity to a random sample of 2,648 subjects. The letter either encouraged people to imagine themselves in someone else's position or to consider that their charity would provide concrete help. The empathy manipulation failed. By contrast, people who were told that their donations were most likely to be effective in helping recipients responded by giving more.

In the end, a disaster's ability to arouse emotion probably accounts for much of the charitable impulse. Do people ever become desensitized to suffering, and develop charity fatigue? The relatively meager response to the earthquake that killed thousands in India and Pakistan might be one sign that they do. But it might take another occasion closer to home to tell more certainly whether the charitable impulse is exhaustible after all.