The New 'Physics' of Today's Philanthropy

The New 'Physics' of Today's Philanthropy

By Paul Schervish

For charitable agencies and other non-profit organizations facing the challenges of the current economic downturn, there is still good reason to be optimistic about the future of fundraising and philanthropy in the United States.

Research conducted by my colleague John Havens and me projects that despite the downturn, between $19 trillion and $50 trillion, in current spending power, will be given - through bequests and lifetime giving - by individuals to charities between 1998 and 2052. For the 20-year period from 1998 to 2017 the amount donated will be between $5 trillion and $6.7 trillion.

As bountiful as these projections are, they do not take into account the new "physics" of philanthropy which is already at work, and which indicates that wealth holders will allocate an even greater portion of their financial resources to charity as time goes on.

Given the amount of money at stake, understanding this new physics of philanthropy has great implications for non-profit ventures. Our research has identified six motivational vectors that are likely to prompt wealth holders to become ever more charitably inclined:

.The desire of wealth holders to find a deeper purpose for their accumulated riches. As more individuals come to recognize at an earlier age that their financial resources exceed their own and their families' material needs, they begin to focus more on how to allocate their excess wealth for the care of others.

.Wealth holders' identification with the fate of others as being akin to their own fate. Donors often perceive those they wish to help to be like themselves or their families, a disposition of identification that contrasts sharply with that of altruism to the extent the latter term connotes the prominence of "selflessness." Our research consistently reveals that wealth holders, like all others who make charitable gifts, regard their philanthropy as an engagement, not an absence, of self.

.The entrepreneurial temperament of wealthy donors, who find in philanthropy a morally attractive outlet for their wealth - a welcoming setting in which to be creative, purposeful, and effective producers of the world around them. In philanthropy, as in business, individuals harness their intelligence, skills, and finances most energetically when they find something that needs to be done, that they want to do, and that has a higher probability of being done successfully due to their hands-on involvement.

.The financial morality that donors are seeking and finding in philanthropy. As wealth holders find that they need to spend less time in full-time employment and as they reach the limit of their desire to consume, they come to recognize that a positive financial morality will require more than instilling in their children the ethics of productive labor and conscientious consumption.

.Wealth holders' desire "to give back," reflecting an appreciation of blessing, gift, luck, or fortune. There are many dimensions to the "spiritual secret" of money, but one of the most powerful is the recognition that just as my fortune is not due entirely to my own merit, others' misfortune may not be completely attributable to their own failure. This realization forges an identification between donor and recipient as the offspring of a common parentage-one which asks its children of good fortune to care for their less fortunate kin.

.Fundraising that takes into account the needs of donors for clarity, effectiveness, and significance in their giving. Fundraisers and charities find donors are more inclined to give, and in larger amounts, to the extent donors are allowed to merge what needs to be done with what they want to do. This means ensuring that donors are not just allowed to, but are encouraged to go through a process of self-discovery about their material capacity, and more importantly about their desire to be effective, to express their gratitude for good fortune, and to personally identify with the needs of people and causes that parallel their own experience. This approach allows wealth holders to reflect on their material capacities and spiritual inclinations in an atmosphere of liberty and inspiration, rather than one of guilt and dictated expectations. It does not deny the importance of charitable duty, but seeks to make such duty self-discovered, and hence more wholeheartedly pursued and sustained.

These six vectors of the new physics of philanthropy provide an increasingly important aspect of spirituality in an age of affluence, both because they are creating quantitative changes in the relationship between wealth and philanthropy, and because they are generating qualitative changes in the relationship between wealth, care for others, and self-fulfillment.

Paul Schervish is a professor in the Sociology Department and director of the Social Welfare Research Institute.


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