Giving More

SWRI research indicates the perception of Americans' giving habits needs an upward revision

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

The character and quality of Americans' charitable giving often generates controversy, but Social Welfare Research Institute Director Prof. Paul Schervish (Sociology) and Senior Research Associate John Havens believe one thing is apparent: There is more of it than we might think.

Confronted by disparate results from the two leading sources on charitable giving, Schervish and Havens analyzed several other studies - including their own - to shed light on the discrepancy. Their findings, published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly , indicate that giving levels are from 34 to 48 percent higher than previously reported from survey data.

Schervish and Havens say their research not only suggests the perceived amount of annual charitable giving needs substantial revision, but that a general reconception of the nature of giving is in order - for the public, as well as scholars.

"The better the methodology for this kind of research, the better training provided for interviewers," Schervish said. "The better questions that are asked, the better a picture we get of the extent to which Americans give. There is a need for discussion about income distribution and how it translates to the public good, and our approach to philanthropy is a key piece of that exploration."

Prof. Paul Schervish (Sociology)-"These results also point to a 'sleeping giant' in the area of wealth and giving." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

The SWRI study was partly prompted by longstanding questions about the quality of data on philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, as reflected in the major sources of statistics in those areas, Independent Sector and American Association of Fund-Raising Counsels. As Schervish and Havens note, the IS survey consistently estimates personal contributions to nonprofit organizations 65 to 75 percent lower than AAFRC. According to IS, average annual household giving is $696, while AAFRC puts the figure at $1,167.

Incorporating data from other surveys, Schervish and Havens found that the average contribution may be as much as $1,100; significantly higher than the IS figure, although not as high as AAFRC's.

Havens and Schervish describe their study as a "kind of minor detective story." SWRI has evaluated the design and implementation of the biennial IS survey, and as part of that evaluation initiated a year-long diary study of 44 Boston area households, which included weekly interviews on giving practices. They discovered that these households reported upwards of 30 percent more charitable giving than recorded for their demographic counterparts in previous IS surveys.

The comparison of the IS, AAFRC and other surveys enabled Havens and Schervish to confirm a higher-than-reported giving level. But as Schervish points out, the study also pointed up a weak methodology for measuring the level and nature of giving.

For example, he said, people tended to minimize their giving, or to be unaware of the giving habits and frequency of others in the household. Perhaps even more importantly, surveys did not always account for informal philanthropy - like providing relatively small amounts of money to family members - or "in-kind" giving, involving clothes or other items.

Such anecdotal information offers a more comprehensive depiction of giving, Schervish said, which is integral to the efforts of SWRI and other scholars to examine Americans' social attitudes and practices.

"We're not talking about the quality of people's souls as determined by financial contributions to charitable causes," Schervish explained. "Our major concern is the dimension of care occurring in society. The patterns we've seen in our study have some important implications: They can help us unlearn certain stereotypes, and alert people to the fact that 'care' encompasses many things.

"These results also point to a 'sleeping giant' in the area of wealth and giving," he added. "There is a lot going on now and a lot that could go on."

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