The joys and challenges of working across disciplinary boundaries

Working with scholars from other disciplines can be a challenge.  The people you meet speak the same language, but the words they use sometimes mean different things. It takes time to learn the vocabulary, even though you know the words. Like the song: I’m an alien. I’m a legal alien: I’m an Englishman in New York.

Curiously, as a quantitative empirical sociologist attending academic research conferences in economics or psychology, I often feel like an amateur anthropologist. I observe customs with which I am unfamiliar, and try to blend in, participating in rituals and ceremonial celebrations of heroes unknown.

A common purpose binds us: the curiosity of a phenomenon unexplained, an intriguing puzzle, unsolved. Or the objective to get an article published in a journal that – before recent discoveries – was largely uncharted territory. Yes, there were dragons. But the joy of having slayed Reviewer 2!



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The force of everyday philanthropy

Public debates on philanthropy link charitable giving to wealth. In the media we hear a lot about the giving behavior of billionaires – about the giving pledge, the charitable foundations of the wealthy, how the causes they support align their business interests, and how they relate to government programs. Yes – the billions of tech giants go a long way. Imagine a world without support from foundations created by wealthy. But we hear a lot less about the everyday philanthropy of people like you and me. The media rarely report on everyday acts of generosity. The force of philanthropy is not only in its focus and mass, but also in its breadth and popularity.

It is one of the common remarks I hear when family, friends and colleagues return from holidays in ‘developing countries’ like Moldova, Myanmar or Morocco: “the people there have nothing, but they are so kind and generous!” The kindness and generosity that we witness as tourists are manifestations of prosociality, the very same spirit that is the ultimate foundation of everyday philanthropy. And also within our own nations, we find that most people give to charity. Why are people in Europe so strongly engaged in philanthropy?

The answer is trust

In Europe we are much more likely to think that most people can be trusted than in other parts of the world. It is this faith in humanity that is crucial for philanthropy. We can see this in a comparison of countries within Europe. The figure combines data from the World Giving Index reports of CAF from 2010-2017 on the proportion of the population giving to charity with data from the Global Trust Research Consortium on generalized social trust. The figure shows that citizens of more trusting countries in Europe are much more likely to give to charities (you can get the data here, and the code is here). The correlation is .52, which is strong.


Egalité et fraternité

One of the reasons why citizens in more trusting countries are more likely to give to charity is that trust is lower in more unequal countries. Combining the data on trust with data from the OECD on income inequality (GINI) reveals a substantial negative correlation of -.37. The larger the differences in income and wealth in a country become, the lower the level of trust that people have in each other. As the wealth of the rich increases, the poor get increasingly envious, and the rich feel an increasing urge to protect their wealth. In such a context, conspiracy theories thrive and institutions that should be impartial and fair to all are trusted less. The criticism that wealthy donors face also stems from this foundation: those concerned with equality and fairness fear the elite power of philanthropy. Et voila: here is the case why it is in the best interest of foundations to reduce inequality.

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Filed under data, Europe, household giving, philanthropy, survey research, trust, wealth

Full Professor of Philanthropy

The board of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam has appointed me as Full Professor of Philanthropy at the Department of Sociology. I will continue my research on prosocial behavior, charitable giving, volunteering and blood donation. I will give a ceremonial inaugural lecture on July 12, 2018, at the 13th ISTR Conference in Amsterdam.


Filed under Center for Philanthropic Studies, VU University

What Oxfam cancellations tell us about donor motivation

What can we learn from the drop in donations to Oxfam after the child abuse news broke? In the UK, about 7,000 donors cancelled, in the Netherlands 1,700, and in Hong Kong 715.

First, the drop does not tell us much about what makes people give. Most donors have continued to give. The 7,000 who cancelled in the UK represent 3.5% of income in the UK. The 1,700 donors who cancelled in the Netherlands are 0.5% of all donors. This means that defaults save lives. The default is to do nothing and continue to give. We’re seeing a small fraction go.

But for those discontinuing their gifts protest, we could say that we can tell why they were giving in the first place by looking at their reactions.

If they gave to Oxfam for altruistic reasons, they will find other charities to give to. They may find it hard to trust Oxfam now, and other charities named in the media.

There is the ‘one bad apple spoils the entire basket’ idea that donors will find faults with other charities as well once one gets bad publicity.

We’ll have to see how much that idea is worth. In previous episodes in the Netherlands, bad publicity about one charity usually did not spill over to other charities. In the Netherlands and Hong Kong it seems altogether more puzzling why donors stopped giving, as the abuse – as far as we know – did not involve the Netherlands or Hong Kong branch.

In my view the cancellations are a result of empathic anger. The more you care about children, the more angry you will be. While empathy has been heralded as an important factor in altruism, it also has a non-altruistic side. The emotion of anger itself and the cancellation may be viewed and communicated as a sign of caring. But it is not effective helping.

There is also a role for public relations. It may be that the abuse corrected an image that charity workers are holy superhumans. A charity that ‘paints itself as whiter than white’ reinforces that image. In times of PR crises like these such an image boomerangs donors away. If donors reckon with the possibility that a charity may attract bad apples as workers, they realize that one bad apple is not evidence of a disease, but of lax quality control.

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Wat is normaal?

Geeft de gemiddelde Nederlander echt 559 euro per jaar aan goede doelen, zoals Arnon Grunberg gisteren schreef op de voorpagina van de Volkskrant?

Nee, dat is onwaarschijnlijk. Grunberg verwees naar een cijfer dat werd genoemd in het HUMAN televisieprogramma ‘Hoe normaal ben jij?’

Het cijfer klopt niet om twee redenen.

1. Het bedrag is veel hoger dan uit ander onderzoek naar filantropie naar voren komt. Het cijfer van Human komt uit een onderzoek dat waarschijnlijk niet representatief is voor alle Nederlanders. Human geeft geen informatie over de peiling die gehouden is, maar het is waarschijnlijk dat het een zogenaamde gelegenheidsgroep is: op de site kan iedereen deelnemen. Degenen die dat doen zijn bijna nooit representatief voor de Nederlandse bevolking.

Het standaard onderzoek naar filantropie, Geven in Nederland (GIN), voert de Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam uit sinds 1995. Het geeft een navolgbaar representatief beeld. Gemiddeld geven huishoudens 341 euro, zo blijkt uit de laatste editie van het GIN onderzoek uit 2017.

2. Het cijfer over een gemiddelde, en dat is niet normaal. Als je het rekenkundig gemiddelde berekent over alle Nederlandse huishoudens, dan zie je niet goed wat de typische Nederlander geeft. De helft van de Nederlandse huishoudens geeft namelijk minder dan 60 euro, blijkt uit GIN. Het gemiddelde wordt sterk beïnvloed door een klein aantal huishoudens dat heel veel geeft. De grafiek kun je gebruiken om te zien hoe normaal je bent: geef je tussen de €150-€200 per jaar, dan hoor je in het derde kwartiel, de groep van ongeveer een kwart van de bevolking die meer geeft dan helft van de Nederlanders. Het kwart meest gevende Nederlanders geeft vaak meer dan €1.000.



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Filed under Center for Philanthropic Studies, household giving, survey research, Uncategorized

Research internship @VU Amsterdam

Social influences on prosocial behaviors and their consequences

While self-interest and prosocial behavior are often pitted against each other, it is clear that much charitable giving and volunteering for good causes is motivated by non-altruistic concerns (Bekkers & Wiepking, 2011). Helping others by giving and volunteering feels good (Dunn, Aknin & Norton, 2008). What is the contribution of such helping behaviors on happiness?

The effect of helping behavior on happiness is easily overestimated using cross-sectional data (Aknin et al., 2013). Experiments provide the best way to eradicate selection bias in causal estimates. Monozygotic twins provide a nice natural experiment to investigate unique environmental influences on prosocial behavior and its consequences for happiness, health, and trust. Any differences within twin pairs cannot be due to additive genetic effects or shared environmental effects. Previous research has investigated environmental influences of the level of education and religion on giving and volunteering (Bekkers, Posthuma and Van Lange, 2017), but no study has investigated the effects of helping behavior on important outcomes such as trust, health, and happiness.

The Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) and the German Twinlife surveys provide rich datasets including measures of health, life satisfaction, and social integration, in addition to demographic and socioeconomic characteristics and measures of helping behavior through nonprofit organizations (giving and volunteering) and in informal social relationships (providing financial and practical assistance to friends and family).

In the absence of natural experiments, longitudinal panel data are required to ascertain the chronology in acts of giving and their correlates. The same holds for the alleged effects of volunteering on trust (Van Ingen & Bekkers, 2015) and health (De Wit, Bekkers, Karamat Ali, & Verkaik, 2015). Since the mid-1990s, a growing number of panel studies have collected data on volunteering and charitable giving and their alleged consequences, such as the German Socio-Economic Panel (GSOEP), the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) / Understanding Society, the Swiss Household Panel (SHP), the Household, Income, Labour Dynamics in Australia survey (HILDA), the General Social Survey (GSS) in the US, and in the Netherlands the Longitudinal Internet Studies for the Social sciences (LISS) and the Giving in the Netherlands Panel Survey (GINPS).

Under my supervision, students can write a paper on social influences of education, religion and/or helping behavior in the form of volunteering, giving, and informal financial and social support on outcomes such as health, life satisfaction, and trust, using either longitudinal panel survey data or data on twins. Students who are interested in writing such a paper are invited to present their research questions and research design via e-mail to

René Bekkers, Center for Philanthropic Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam


Aknin, L. B., Barrington-Leigh, C. P., Dunn, E. W., Helliwell, J. F., Burns, J., Biswas-Diener, R., … Norton, M. I. (2013). Prosocial spending and well-being: Cross-cultural evidence for a psychological universal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(4), 635–652.

Bekkers, R., Posthuma, D. & Van Lange, P.A.M. (2017). The Pursuit of Differences in Prosociality Among Identical Twins: Religion Matters, Education Does Not. 

Bekkers, R., & Wiepking, P. (2011). A Literature Review of Empirical Studies of Philanthropy: Eight Mechanisms That Drive Charitable Giving. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 40:

De Wit, A., Bekkers, R., Karamat Ali, D., & Verkaik, D. (2015). Welfare impacts of participation. Deliverable 3.3 of the project: “Impact of the Third Sector as Social Innovation” (ITSSOIN), European Commission – 7th Framework Programme, Brussels: European Commission, DG Research.

Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness. Science, 319(5870): 1687–1688.

Van Ingen, E. & Bekkers, R. (2015). Trust Through Civic Engagement? Evidence From Five National Panel Studies. Political Psychology, 36 (3): 277-294.

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Filed under altruism, Center for Philanthropic Studies, data, experiments, happiness, helping, household giving, Netherlands, philanthropy, psychology, regression analysis, survey research, trust, volunteering

How not to solve the research competition crisis

Scientists across the globe spend a substantial part of their time writing research proposals for competitive grant schemes. Usually, less than one in seven proposals gets funded. Moreover, the level of competition and the waste of time invested in research proposals that do not receive funding are increasing.

The most important funder of science in the Netherlands, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO), is painfully aware of the research competition crisis. On April 4, 2017, more than one hundred of the nation’s scientists gathered in a conference to come up with solutions for the crisis. I was one of them.

The conference made clear that the key problem is that we have too many good candidates and high quality research proposals that cannot be funded with the current budget. Without an increase in the budget for research funding, however, that problem is unlikely to go away.


Stan Gielen, the new director of NWO, opened the conference. Because the universities and NWO lack bargaining power in the government that determines the budget for NWO, he asked the scientists at the conference to think about ‘streamlining procedures’. In roundtable discussions, researchers talked about questions like: “How can the time it takes between a final ranking in a grant competition and the announcement of the result to applicants be reduced?”

Many proposals came up during the meeting. The more radical proposals were to discontinue funding for NWO altogether and to reallocate funding back to the universities, to give a larger number of smaller grants, to allocate funding through lotteries among top-rated applications, and the idea by Scheffer to give researchers voting rights on funding allocations. I left the meeting with an increased sense of urgency but with little hope for a solution. Gielen concluded the meeting with the promise to initiate conversations with the ministry for Education, Culture and Science about the results of the conference and to report back within six months.

Yesterday, NWO presented its proposals. None of the ideas above made it. Instead, a set of measures were announced that are unlikely to increase chances of funding. The press release does not say why ineffective measures were favored over effective measures.

Two of the proposals by NWO shift work to the universities, giving them responsibility in pre-evaluations of proposals. At the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam we already make quite an investment in such pre-evaluations, but not all universities do so. Also the universities are now told to use an instrument to reduce the number of proposals: the financial guarantee. Also this proposal is akin to a measure we already had in place, the obligatory budget check. The financial guarantee is an additional hurdle applicants have to take.

The proposal to give non-funded but top-rated ERC proposals a second chance at NWO reduces some of the work for applicants, but does not increase chances for funding.

A final proposal is to ask applicants to work together with other applicants with related ideas. It may be a good idea for other reasons, but does not increase chances for funding.


Now what?

One of the causes of the problem that funding chances are declining is the reward that universities get for graduations of PhD candidates (‘promotiepremie’). This reward keeps up the supply of good researchers. PhD candidates are prepared and motivated for careers in science. But these careers are increasingly hard to get into. As long as the dissertation defense reward is in place, one long term solution is to change the curriculum in graduate schools, orienting them to non-academic careers.

Another long-term solution is to diversify funding sources for science. In the previous cabinets, the ministry of Economic Affairs has co-controlled funding allocations to what were labeled ‘topsectors’. Evaluations of this policy have been predominantly negative. One of the problems is that the total budget for science was not increased, but the available budget was partly reallocated for applied research in energy, water, logistics etcetera. It is unclear how the new government thinks about this, but it seems a safe bet not to have much hope for creative ideas from this side. But there is hope for a private sector solution.

There is a huge amount of wealth in the Netherlands that investment bankers are trying to invest responsibly. As a result of increases in wealth, the number of private foundations established that support research and innovation has increased strongly in the past two decades. These foundations are experimenting with new financial instruments like impact investing and venture philanthropy. The current infrastructure and education at universities, however, is totally unfit to tap into this potential of wealth. Which graduate program offers a course in creating a business case for investments in research?




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Filed under Europe, incentives, policy evaluation, politics, VU University