The 1995 Boston Area Diary Study was intended to broaden the definition of philanthropic activity and provide a baseline against which to evaluate the Survey of Giving and Volunteering conducted every two years by the Gallup Organization for the Independent Sector, the national umbrella organization of non-profit organizations. It has shed light on the generous nature of 44 participants, nearly all of whom gave their time and money generously to religious organizations, other charitable organizations, family, friends, acquaintances or other individuals on an informal basis in 1995.
Unlike the Survey of Giving and Volunteering, which logs money, goods and volunteer time given to charitable organizations, SWRI asked randomly selected Boston-area residents about time, money and emotional support that they either gave to or received from family, friends and charitable organizations. In doing so, SWRI made sure to find out about people's "relations of care," which they participate in informally with friends, family, and neighbors.
Weekly interviews revealed that many people fail to report to Gallup contributions of time and energies that are given and received on an informal basis, particularly when they involve people, rather than institutions.
"A parent who consoles a child in the middle of the night is as honorable as any volunteer," said Schervish. "To understand the quality of virtue in society one must look beyond the formal definitions of philanthropy to identify the amount of care that is given and received. This study shifts the emphasis away from the institution to care as a relationship."
SWRI Director Paul Schervish-"To understand the quality of virtue in society one must look beyond the formal definitions of philanthropy to identify the amount of care that is given and received." (Photo by Gary Gilbert)
Formal definitions of giving do not factor the full expanse of the human side of caring - praying for others, caring for an elderly relative or helping others with their children, for example - into the philanthropic equation.
In addition to loans and gifts of money and contributions of time, the study shows that each participant praised, congratulated, or similarly encouraged people - other than immediate family members - more than 460 times per year. Such quantification is meant only to point to "the quality of virtue in society and the amount of care exchanged," said Schervish.
From consoling friends in need to receiving child care from their parents, participants were asked to talk about their daily and weekly charitable acts which were, in many instances, difficult for them to identify.
"I had one woman who apologized for having to reduce the amount of time she volunteered at the church for a party she was throwing," said SWRI Associate Director and Senior Researcher John Havens. "It wasn't until weeks later that I learned, when I asked her specifically about the party, that it was for underprivileged children. She had rented out space in a church, provided all of the food, arranged transportation from local cab drivers and gotten store owners to donate presents for all of these children. She didn't count it as volunteer work, though, because she said she got a lot of enjoyment out of it."
According to the study, participants gave an average of $9,269 during the year; $1,490 to charitable organizations and $7,779 to relatives, friends and neighbors, including an average of $4,834 to their own adult children. They also devoted an average of 58 days of time to helping others both through volunteering at charitable organizations (15 days) or helping friends, relatives and acquaintances directly (43 days).
Conversely, the participants reported receiving an average of $3,676 from organizations and directly from friends, relatives, and acquaintances, almost as much as they gave (other than to adult children). The participants also reported receiving 22 days of help from other people and organizations.
Overall, participants were more likely to contribute to causes or people with whom they felt connected, either by birth or circumstance, according to Havens. This is a central component of a theory that focuses on the link between spirituality and practical behavior that is being developed by Schervish and Havens.
Besides exploring caring behavior beyond the traditional definition and scope used in studies of philanthropy, the study for the first time explored the variation in giving and volunteering during the course of the year. Charitable giving peaked in late May as well as during the traditional Christmas period, the survey found, while volunteer time reached high levels in January, late May, and October but fell off shortly after Thanksgiving.
With continued research into the field of care as a form of volunteerism, Schervish plans to explore the value of time spent with family or friends in comparison to that which is volunteered to a formal organization within the context of philanthropy.
"These various helping links are important but often unnoticed components of contemporary society. They are part of a rich fabric of associational life that is much healthier than most people realize," said Schervish, who disputes the belief that there has been a decline in the amount of volunteer efforts. "I believe that there has been a shifting of care to new areas rather than a decline in the level of care."
-Heather Reese Grimshaw
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