“What do people misunderstand about your research?” A great question that allows me to correct a few popular ideas about our research on philanthropy.
1. Who pays you? The first misunderstanding is that charities pay for our research on philanthropy. We understand that you would think that, because for charitable organizations it is useful to know what makes people give. After all, they are in the business of fundraising. On the other hand, you would not assume that second hand car dealers or diamond traders fund research on trust or that ski resort owners would fund climate change research. We are talking to foundations and fundraising organizations about the insights from our work that may help them in their business, but the work itself is funded primarily by the Ministry of Justice and Security of the government of the Netherlands and by the DG Research & Innovation of the European Commission.
2. What is the best charity? The second misunderstanding is that we vet charities and foundations, like we are some sort of philanthropy police. We don’t rate effective charities or give prizes for the best foundations, nor do we keep lists of bad apples in the philanthropy sector. We don’t track the activities that charities spend their funds on, or how much is ‘actually going to the cause’. If you need this kind of information, check the annual reports of organizations. We do warn the public that raising money costs money and that organizations saying they have no overhead costs are probably doing something wrong.
3. What is altruism? The third misunderstanding is that altruism is a gift that entails a sacrifice. You can hear this when people give each other compliments like: “That is very altruistic of you!” When people give to others despite the fact that they have little themselves and giving is costly, we tend to think this gift is worth more than a relatively small gift by a wealthy person. The term you are looking for here is generosity, not altruism. Altruism is a gift motivated by a concern for the well-being of the recipient. How much of the giving we see is altruism is one of the key questions on philanthropy. Which conditions make people give out of altruism, and what kind of people are more likely to do so, is a very difficult question to answer, because it is so difficult to isolate altruism from egoistic motivations for giving.
4. Crowding-in. The fourth misunderstanding is that less government implies more philanthropy. You can hear this in statements like “Americans give so much because the government there does so little”. The desire to have a small government is a political goal in itself, not an effective way to increase philanthropy. As government spending increases, citizens do not give less, and conversely, as government spending decreases, citizens do not give more. In the past decades, giving in the USA as a proportion of GDP is essentially a flat line with some fluctuation around 2%, even though government spending has increased enormously in this period. Also countries in which government spending as a proportion of GDP is higher are not necessarily countries in which people give more. In Europe, we even see a negative relationship: as citizens pay more taxes, a higher proportion of the population gives to charity. Learn more about this by reading my lecture ‘Values of Philanthropy’ at the 13th ISTR Conference we organized at VU Amsterdam.
PS – It was the tweet below (link here) that prompted this post: