The Surprising Truth About American Generosity

Who gives and gives well? Sociologists Patricia Snell Herzog and Heather E. Price lend their book American Generosity a rigorously analytical eye. They hold our country’s charitable giving up to the mirror and keep turning it until they reveal every angle, explaining quantitatively and qualitatively the what, who, where, and why of generosity. The result is one of the most in-depth and compelling portraits of American philanthropy yet.

The authors approach giving as Eisenhower did Normandy. Their Science of Generosity initiative assaults its subject with field observations, personal interviews, a nationally representative survey, and more than a thousand photographs. They meet, among 60 others, Anthony, a poor Latino in his mid-20s living in Washington, DC, and Regina, a 30-year-old stay-at-home mom in North Carolina who gives what little she can.

To Herzog and Price, generosity is “giving good things to others freely and abundantly.” Of the nine forms of generosity the authors identify, the “Big 3” of giving money, time, and political action are most prominent. Yet they find that “many Americans give nothing, some give a little, and a few give generously.” Indeed, forty-five percent of us gave no money to charity in the past year. Only three percent of Americans report giving ten percent or more of their income, while just five percent of those surveyed volunteered a tenth of their waking hours.

How much we have does not necessarily determine how much we give. The poor are far more likely to offer up just one percent of their incomes to charity than the wealthy. We also do not lack free time to give; we simply choose to watch TV, shop, or surf the Internet instead. Many of us are like Cindy Phelps, a young New York City tutor, who, when asked about giving, admitted “it’s not really on my radar.”

Simply looking at one type of giving in isolation though may not do justice to our generosity. Two-thirds of Americans report giving money, volunteering, or taking political action. “Giving comes in different forms,” said one interviewee, and “it is not always money.” Even those without much to give find ways to be generous in the context of family and close community. The vast majority of Americans radiate generosity toward those closest to them. Our portfolio of giving, when looked at expansively, is a glass that is more than half-full.

It turns out that while there is no one predictor of who gives what and by how much, religious attendance, college, and income go a long way toward explaining variations in giving. We can also pinpoint where these givers live. Accounting for demographic differences, Westerners are generous with their money while Northeasterners are giving of their time. Midwesterners are the most generous with their time, money, and politics overall — the South, not so much.

Herzog and Price’s most significant findings come when they turn their mirror on us individually. Most of us fall into and out of a few basic types of giver over time. Planned givers have routines and consciously consider their donations. Habitual types consistently and abundantly give without much thought. These first two categories are likelier to be filled with Americans who are wealthy, religious, and educated, and they are generally the most generous.

Selective givers meanwhile pick and choose requests as they arrive, while the Impulsive givers just let giving happen and are the least generous of the four. The rest of American givers, about two in ten, are what the authors call “Atypical,” in that their answers were contradictory or incomplete. They are the least likely to participate in all forms of generosity save for political action.

Generosity ripples outward from self to others. First taking care of our own needs frees those around us to give to others. From first caring for “me” to then providing for “us,” we move on to living our values out in community, and finally to sustaining our lifestyles and professional identities through generosity. With each new “circle of generosity,” we meet increasingly general social needs. Those who are most generous are likely to have a sense of higher purpose in life, and through an acute awareness of their own abundant resources as well as the needs of others believe that “we are all here to help each other.”

The far majority of Americans see themselves as generous and desire the social approval it brings. Only ten percent of Americans believe that being generous is an unimportant quality. That approval translates a generous self-identity into support for continued giving. Parents, spouses, friends, faith, and community act as reinforcing webs of social affiliation that, as Herzog and Price put it, “grease the wheels of generosity — or provide friction that inhibits it.”

Parents in particular are vital influences on whether or not we learn to give. “Generous parents make for generous kids,” as AEI’s Arthur Brooks has found. In fact, seventy-six percent of Americans had parents who modeled generosity. Simply putting money in a collection plate at church helps shape the look of generosity to children. As the authors note, “It is rare to find generous Americans living in communities that do not support giving.” Giving is infectious, and generosity is the currency of society.

American Generosity is two books in one: a rigorous sociological study that wrings nuance from data, and a collage of people’s lives in brokenness and plenty. Few authors can manage this well on such a scale, and at times Herzog and Price’s precision is the enemy of clarity. They also do not compare Americans’ generosity to the rest of the world, nor do they delve into the roles that government or political affiliation play.

Yet practitioners will find not only a more nuanced understanding of reaching givers, but know how to actualize the millions of Americans who do not yet give. Charities can craft their outreach based on the sort of giver they are attempting to reach. There is an incredible potential to boost generosity in America, and to do so begins with faith, family, community, and work — the soil in which generosity and happiness grow.

Scholars will no doubt mine the authors findings for years to come. American Generosity is likely to become an essential reference point for understanding philanthropy in the modern age. And for the rest of us, we know ourselves better now. Simply asking the questions that Herzog and Price pose may make us more conscious and generous givers.

As Americans, we are complex and complicated people who too often fail to live up to our own self-esteem. But as humans there is also in us a seed of generosity. It flourishes in our nature as social animals. No matter our intentions or politics, our generosity flows outward from self to others by nature. We must only find this generosity where it is and help it to grow.

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