Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Nature or nurture?

Why does anyone give to charity at all, when they could keep money for themselves and be “better off”? This question puzzles scholars the world over. Surprisingly the results are remarkably consistent across cultures. Some people give everywhere research has been done, albeit sometimes more or less often.

Why does anyone give? Increasing evidence suggests that it is an important form of social bonding. A recent article in The Economist summarizes it like this: “The benefits and chances of future encounters ….. [show] that it pays to be trusting, even though you will sometimes be cheated.”

But some people are either naturally distrustful or learn to be wary of others. A study in Israel found that people who did not give or gave very little in a laboratory game had a genetic variation compared with those who did.

A Center on Philanthropy analysis of charitable giving in three different years by the same people found that 15 percent of folks did not give at all in those years. Households that did not give tended to be lower income, so genetic variation does not necessarily play a role there. But maybe … if genetic variations are associated with trust, perhaps people whose genes lead them to low trust also have a harder time than others learning skills for, then finding and keeping a higher-paying job? A good research project for someone.

So what besides a possible genetic predisposition is associated with a lack of social trust? Basically, recent or persistent bad experiences. Alesina and La Ferrara found with U.S. data that people with low trust were likely to report any one or more of the following: recent trauma such as severe illness, job loss, or divorce; identification with a group historically subject to racism or bias; a low level of education or earnings; or residence in a community that is racially very diverse or in a community that includes people with very high income and people with low income. (Side note: Riots in parts of the U.K. this year and in France last year make a lot of sense in this context: those rioting are among the poorest in their societies and are often the victims of systematic bias.)

Psychologist Dacher Keltner's research finds that as a species, humans are Born to Be Good. However, experience shows that some people have more opportunities to act good--happy, compassionate, mirthful, etc.--than others.

Gretchen Rubin at The Happiness Project offers all of us, no matter what our genetic make-up and recent experiences seven tips for how to be happier in the next HOUR. One of them is "Do a good deed."

What will YOUR good deed be? It could be a charitable gift, contribution of volunteer time, making an appointment to give blood (and keeping it), or helping someone you know accomplish their own goal. Whatever it is, all research shows: do it and you'll feel better, and the world will be a bit better, too.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Indiana State Fair Remembrance Fund

I found out about this yesterday: The Central Indiana Community Foundation has established a special fund to collect contributions for the survivors of those who died and to help the injured. This link opens the donation window automatically.

I just made my contribution, and I will mail a gift today to the fund established at a church in memory of my friend's brother-in-law who died.



Monday, August 15, 2011

Life is Not Fair!

When we are moved, we often give. Americans gave more than $1.4 billion for relief and recovery in Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake and a combined several billion dollars after the 2004 “Boxing Day” tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. We also gave several billion dollars after the attacks in 2001.

In response to a much less severe but still heart-wrenching tragedy, Indiana residents are grieving for five dead and scores injured after a temporary stage collapsed in a windstorm at our State Fair.

My initial response, on hearing the news, is “Where do I give memorial contributions?”

But WHY do I and so many others want to give money, or teddy bears, or water and other essentials when we hear of a tragedy?

Twenty years ago, I heard a phrase to describe philanthropy: “Money is me where I cannot be.” I associate it with a Lutheran bishop, but I am not sure why. Maybe you know? Whoever said it first, it captures perfectly my response. I cannot literally reach out to the survivors, the victims’ families, the witnesses and others directly affected by the events of Saturday night, but I can give a little as an expression of my empathy.

I think that is why we (and people around the world) GIVE in response to disaster. This is not strategic philanthropy to bring out widespread social change. This is not a steady series of contributions to support an organization’s operations or to make a statement about our personal values.

A gift after a disaster is a metaphorical embrace when you know someone else is in great pain.

Bob Payton, first full-time director of the Center on Philanthropy, called the study of philanthropy a study of the “social history of the moral imagination.” The sign of an active moral imagination is being able to feel what we think others feel in response to a shock or to joy.

Humans are not the only species to feel empathy (see Frans de Waal’s book The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society); however we are the species in which empathy has been extensively studied. There is no one answer about the origins of empathy, or whether it is learned or in-born (or some of each), although the complete absence of empathy is one trait of a psychopath.

To the extent that we are moved to share joys and pains of our friends or even of those distantly connected to us, we are expressing our humanity – you could even say, we express our humaneness. I have not yet found a site to make memorial contributions for the five who died from injuries sustained Saturday. But I want to because it is one of the only ways I—as a stranger—can say to their families: we share your sorrow.

If you know anyone affected by Saturday's tragedy, please comment with the first name, so that readers can keep these people in their prayers and thoughts. Thank you.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The latest data

So this morning, I wrote 350 engaging words about research into WHY people give. If you want to read that, stay tuned for another day, because in the process of preparing that post, I discovered that last week the IRS released final data about charitable giving in 2009.

SO.....ta da. A quick look at what changed between 2008 and 2009 in the world of individual, itemized charitable contributions.

The short, short answer is that itemized giving fell -- as anticipated -- from 2008. The total decline for the amount claimed in charitable deductions was 9%.

Interestingly, though, tax returns with income UNDER $200,000 actually gave an AVERAGE amount that was 3% more than the average amount given in 2008. However, tax returns with income over $200,000 declined in number by 10%, saw a 20% drop in income overall, and reported 18% less in all itemized contributions -- and a 9% decline in the average charitable contribution.

The biggest drop overall, not shown on the table attached, was in gifts that count as "other than cash." Usually that means securities, and since the stock market in 2009 hadn't even started looking up yet, that isn't a surprise.

Word from my friends in fundraising is that many organizations have seen increases in charitable amounts received in the first half of 2011. What will happen with annual campaigns this fall? If you have thoughts, post them in the Comments area below.



Friday, August 5, 2011

Horn of Africa crisis

Nearly 50 U.S.-based charities working on Horn of Africa crisis are listed at this site, organized by Interaction. Determine your priorities and use the links provided to give.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Goosey Goosey Gander

Research shows over and over that women are more likely to give – and give more – than men after controlling for income and education. So imagine my surprise when twice last week, my spouse asked me to put gifts to organizations into our household budget. Typically, one of the kids or I propose the contribution.

It is said that men often expect something for their gifts. For some guys, it is football tickets….for my guy, it is free parking at an art museum. So, the gift goes out so he can go in.

The second gift was essentially a vote for his political perspective in a year without an election. The recipient is the research foundation associated with a partisan newsletter about public policy and shenanigans inside the Beltway. So, while this gift is not necessarily about impact or achieving meaningful change in our lifetimes, it satisfies his need to DO something already about the quagmire that Congress and the Executive branch are slogging through.

As for the four gooseys in this household, Ann asked for funding for an event tied to the start of school next week (yes, in Indiana, we start in early August!). Lia wants to keep supporting organizations that seek cures for AIDS and cancer. Elle is 17 and 3/4ths, so rolls her eyes and shrugs if I ask. I just made an admittedly token gift to alleviate some of my guilt at being an over-fed American when people in Africa and elsewhere (including here) are literally starving to death. The photo on the front page of a recent issue of New York Times was horrific to see. Sometimes, even if you know the drop is tiny in a huge ocean of need, you just have to do it.