December 08, 2015

Who Gives to Charity?

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

After Thanksgiving, we are encouraged to give of ourselves, our time, and our money. Many people serve food in shelters and food kitchens on Thanksgiving. Many continue to do something charitable into December and sometimes into January. Some actually continue giving or volunteering throughout the year.
However, in November and December there is a huge jump in charitable behaviors.

Who are these people? Why do people do this?

There is a lot of research on charitable giving– and a few academic journals devoted to studying philanthropy and the organizations that gain resources from these charitable activities. The journal Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly is one of the main journals in which you can find such research, along with Nonprofit Management & Leadership and the Journal for Nonprofit Management, to name a few. Other more broadly defined journals have also published good research on this topic, including the American Journal of Sociology, Annual Review of Sociology, American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Sociology of Religion, Journal of Research on Adolescence, Canadian Review of Sociology, and Sociology.

Demographically, people who donate come from many backgrounds, although some are more likely than others to volunteer or give at higher rates. John Wilson and Marc Musick have done a few overviews of the research on volunteers and Wilson’s article, "Volunteerism Research: A Review Essay," gives a great overview with details on the differences among groups. Generally, those with more social capital tend to volunteer more than others. Those with jobs, more income, and more education tend to belong or have access to more organizations and thus are more likely to give of their time and their money.

Some research suggests that those in the lower income brackets actually give a greater percentage of their income to charity – although those in the upper incomes give more dollars. Ten percent of $30,000 is much smaller than 1% of $5,000,000.But the toll those amounts take on the household budget are quite different; $3,000 is a lot when you make only $30,000 while $50,000 out of $5,000,000 may not make a dent. Besides, donations are typically tax deductible, of which those with higher income would definitely take advantage.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Rene Bekkers and Pamala Wiepking provide an overview of charitable giving, and find that similar dynamics are at play. They discuss eight mechanisms that link donors to organizations, including social need, solicitation, costs and benefits, altruism, reputation, psychological costs and benefits, values, and efficacy. There is an intricate interplay between people and organizations, each contributing to whether or not donations are given.

There’s a reason we get so much mail asking us to donate at the end of the year – solicitation in the holiday season works!

A new study, recently reported, looks deeply into the dynamics of why and when wealthier people donate. Stephane Cote, Julian House, and Robb Willer found that higher income people give more when they feel that income inequality is less – and that they give less when they are aware of higher income inequality in the society (or neighborhood) around them.

This has important consequences for the (mostly nonprofit) organizations that depend on donations. With our rising income inequality – and increasing awareness about this – will those with higher incomes donate less?

Those with more resources, especially those in the upper class, often give to organizations that are aligned with their interests: Museums and other places that they patronize, and disease-based charities whose diseases have touched their families. Susan A. Ostrander’s classic book, Women of the Upper Class, is a rare glimpse into this world if you’d like more details.

While anyone who donates probably chooses an organization that deals with issues close to their experience, the donations of the wealthier class in society tends to contribute a higher amount, sometimes effectively funding the majority of the organization’s budget.

If the Cote, House, and Willer research holds true, perhaps those living in gated communities and wealthy enclaves will continue donating – and volunteering – as they have. They are insulated from the rising inequality outside their gates. But as they come and go outside those gates and encounter the rest of us and/or become more aware of the inequality that is in close proximity, will those donations dry up?

What will that do to social issues that those organizations attempt to resolve or at least ease? Will this create an ongoing cycle in which fewer and fewer donations are given as more and more see the problems increase? Or will that eventually signal greater social needs, as the Bekkers and Wiepking article suggests, and potentially prompt more giving?


Very informative post! Many people nowadays are giving to the charity which proves to be beneficial to help the poor communities. My aunt who always engage with volunteering program is current associated with mission humanitaire volunteering program in Benin and always encourages me to support the needy people so that they should live a good life. Many NGO's are providing help to unfortunate people by organizing different volunteering program. My aunt also suggested to check this site to make donation or participating in volunteering program.

I appreciate that you took the time to write this blog…awesome work go ahead. If you want to make the world a better place, you can still contribute without cutting a big check. Thanks.

Thank you so much for sharing this. The best charity is that given by one who has little.

A very informative article. I really appreciate your research. Thank you for sharing such amazing information with us. I loved your article.

I love how this blog delves into the motivations behind charitable giving. It's fascinating to explore the reasons behind people's generosity and the impact it has on society.

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