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Enough is never enough: Why most Americans donate little or nothing to charity

Children at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Auburn, New York | Jill Fandrich

Americans like to think of themselves as a generous people.

Two-thirds of Americans agree that it is very important for them to be a generous person, according to the Science of Generosity survey.

Another quarter of Americans were neutral; just 10 percent disagreed that generosity was not a very important quality.

But the truth appears much different.

Forty-five percent of Americans, including nearly four in 10 who said a generous self-identity was important to them, actually gave no money to charity in the past year, the same survey found.

Less than a quarter of Americans gave more than $500.

What we end up with is a nation where a relatively few people give freely and abundantly, while most of us give little or nothing, Patricia Snell Herzog and Heather E. Price report in their new book, “American Generosity: Who Gives and Why.”

The two researchers, co-investigators with the Science of Generosity Initiative at the University of Notre Dame, delve into the survey findings and scores of personal interviews to present a portrait of the state of American giving.

It is often not an attractive picture.

The poor are with us

How much we give is partly the result of to how much we have. Just not in the way you might think.

About 30 percent of Americans living below the poverty level gave to charity, the study found.

Those most in need were twice as likely as non-poor Americans to donate up to 1 percent of their income. For contributions above 1 percent, there were no differences in the percentage of income given for people above and below the poverty level.

The findings demonstrate “the tremendous generosity that can be found among those with the least financial resources and the overall thinness of generosity among many with more financial resources,” Herzog and Price state.

The results also illustrate a wide divide in our understanding of and empathy for those most in need.

People in poverty have firsthand knowledge of their day-to-day struggles, which often involve choices such as putting food on the table vs. paying the rent. So they are aware that giving even a little can make a huge difference in the lives of their neighbors.

But researchers in the generosity survey also found that non-poor Americans are likely to be focused on the responsibilities of the people at the income level above them.

“One of our first kind of gut reactions with regard to giving can be that that’s for wealthy people to do,” Herzog said.

“People constantly think there’s some other point when they can have more money, or that somebody who already has more money may be more inclined to give or be more able to,” she added.

But that point often never comes.

In contrast to giving by the poor, Herzog noted, researchers would interview “a busy executive who makes so much money and has a brand-new car and a really nice house and seems to feel like it’s not enough.”

Collecting the Offering in a Scottish Kirk | John Phillip

Sources of inspiration

Fortunately, Herzog and Price found hope that there is a vast, untapped potential to American generosity.

They uncovered inspirational stories of people such as a Midwestern couple with two young children that give about 15 percent of their $75,000 to $80,000 annual income to charity.

“Helping someone in need is more important than the giving of the money. The being able to be of assistance for a human being is huge,” the mother told researchers.

Giving eventually gets easier, she and her husband have found.

“You find ways to live with what you have and come to the understanding and the realization that what you have is enough,” she said. “So I think that’s what probably gradually, over time, makes it easier is that ‘I don’t need that. It’s not gonna be life changing to have that.’”

In general, Herzog and Price found that generous givers are more likely to have a sense of higher purpose in life.
They also are likelier to reflect the mentality “we are all here to help each other,” and to share the conviction that we are all responsible for each other.

When it comes to money, generous givers are more likely to have what Herzog and Price label a prosperity outlook, a perspective where you are aware of both your own material abundance and of the needs of others.

How do you cultivate those qualities?

Parents and faith are two major contributors, the researchers said.

Moms and dads who hope to raise generous children need to model giving early, Herzog and Price said.

Showing children how to write a check to donate to charity or the act of putting money in a collection plate at church are significant visible actions “in a typically invisible realm of finances.”

Just as it is rare to be a giver without some childhood recollections of parental generosity, so, too, did faith stand out in relation to generosity.

People who attend services more often – particularly in religious communities that emphasized the spiritual importance of giving – were more likely to be generous givers.

A tip Herzog and Price offer religious leaders: Do not be afraid to talk about money. And when you do, remember that congregation members are much more likely respond to a “vision call.”

Emphasize how giving is related to what is means to be a good person fulfilling their own higher calling.

Repeatedly asking for funds to fix the furnace or repair the roof tends to be more annoying than inspiring.

A larger takeaway for all Americans: Generosity is everyone’s responsibility.

“We should question the assumption that someone else is giving, or could give, more than we can,” Herzog and Price state. “We all need to give for generosity to achieve its goal of the greater societal good.”

Image source Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, by Jill Fandrich

Image source Wikimedia Commons, by John Phillip, {{PD-1923}}

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