Category Archives: altruism

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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Philanthropy: from Charity to Prosocial Investment

Contribution to the March 2016 edition of the European Research Network on Philanthropy (ERNOP) newsletter. PDF version here.

Philanthropy can take many forms. It ranges from the student who showed up at my doorstep with a collection tin to raise small contributions for legal assistance to the poor to the recent announcement by Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan of the establishment of a $42 billion charitable foundation. The media focused on the question why Zuckerberg and Chan would put 99% of their wealth in a foundation. The legal form of the foundation allowed Zuckerberg to keep control over the shares without having to pay taxes. Leaving aside the difficult question what motivation the legal form confesses for the moment, my point is that a change is taking place in the face that philanthropy takes.

Entrepreneurial forms of philanthropy, manifesting a strategic investment orientation, become more visible. We see them in social impact bonds, in social enterprises, in venture philanthropy and in the investments of foundations in the development of new drugs and treatments. A reliable count of the prevalence of such prosocial investments is not available, but 2015 was certainly a memorable year: the first Ebola vaccine was produced in a lab funded by the Wellcome Trust and polio was eradicated from Africa through coordinated efforts supported by a coalition of the WHO, Unicef, the Rotary International Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Of course there are limitations to philanthropy. Some problems are just too big to handle, even for the wealthiest foundations on earth, using the most innovative forms of investments. The refugee crisis continues to challenge the resilience of Europe. NGOs are delivering relief aid in the most difficult circumstances. But these efforts are band aids, as long as political leaders are struggling to gather the will power to solve it together.

The Zuckerberg/Chan announcement revived previous critiques of philanthrocapitalism. Isn’t it dangerous to have so much money in so few hands? Can we rely on wealthy foundations to invest in socially responsible ways? Foundations are the freest institutions on earth and can take risks that governments cannot afford. But the track records of the corporations that gave rise to the current foundation fortunes are not immaculate, monopolizing markets and evading taxes. Wealthy foundations can have a significant impact on society and influence public policy, limiting the influence of governments. It is political will that enables the existence and facilitates the fortune of wealthy foundations. Ultimately, the realization that the interests of the people should not be harmed enables the activities of foundations. Hence the talk about the importance of giving back to society.

The sociologist Alvin Gouldner is famous for his 1960 article ‘The Norm of Reciprocity’, which describes how reciprocity works. He also wrote a second classic, much less known: ‘The Importance of Something for Nothing.’ In this follow-up (1973), he stresses the norm of beneficence: “This norm requires men to give others such help as they need. Rather than making help contingent upon past benefits received or future benefits expected, the norm of beneficence calls upon men to aid others without thought of what they have done or what they can do for them, and solely in terms of a need imputed to the potential recipient.” In a series of studies I co-authored with Mark Ottoni-Wilhelm, an economist from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, we call this norm ‘the principle of care’.

With this quote I return to the question about motivation. The letter to their daughter in which Zuckerberg and Chan announced their foundation reveals noble concerns for the future of mankind. It is not their child’s need that motivated them, but the needs of the world in which she is born. This is the genesis of true philanthropy. Pretty much like the awareness of need that the law student demonstrated at my doorstep.


Bekkers, R. & Ottoni-Wilhelm, M. (2016). Principle of Care and Giving to Help People in Need. European Journal of Personality.  

Gouldner, A.W. (1960). The Norm of Reciprocity: A Preliminary Statement. American Sociological Review, 25 (2): 161-178.

Gouldner, A.W. (1973). The Importance of Something for Nothing. In: Gouldner, A.W. (Ed.). For Sociology, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Wilhelm, M.O., & Bekkers, R. (2010). Helping Behavior, Dispositional Empathic Concern, and the Principle of Care. Social Psychology Quarterly, 73 (1): 11-32.

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De veerkracht van de filantropie


Deze tekst als pdf downloaden

Burgerkracht, lokale actie, de doe-democratie, de participatiesamenleving: we komen deze termen steeds vaker tegen in de politiek, de media en beleidsstukken van de overheid en adviesorganen. De termen fungeren in een fundamenteel debat over de verdeling van verantwoordelijkheid van burgers en de overheid voor het welzijn van anderen en de samenleving. Het uitgangspunt van deze stukken is de autonome, zelfredzame burger, die geen overheidsregeling nodig heeft om voor zichzelf, de eigen omgeving en de samenleving te zorgen.

Bij dit uitgangspunt past de filantropie, gedefinieerd als vrijwillige bijdragen van geld en tijd aan het algemeen nuttige doelen zoals gezondheid, cultuur, onderwijs, natuur en levensbeschouwing. Die bijdragen komen niet alleen van levende burgers, maar ook van overledenen (via nalatenschappen), van bedrijven, vermogensfondsen, en van goededoelenloterijen. In 2013 ging er in de filantropie in totaal zo’n €4,4 miljard om. In 2011 spraken het kabinet en de sector filantropie af intensiever samen te werken aan de kwaliteit van de samenleving. Door het activerende beleid doet de overheid een groter beroep op vrijwillige bijdragen in de vorm van geld en tijd en neemt de maatschappelijke betekenis van filantropie toe.

In theorie biedt voorziening van maatschappelijke doelen en collectieve arrangementen uit vrijwilligheid een voordeel boven verplichting via belasting of een andere vrijheidsbeperking. Via vrijwillige bijdragen krijgen burgers meer controle over de kwaliteit van de samenleving en kunnen ze daar ook met recht trots op zijn. Burgers dragen liever vrijwillig bij aan maatschappelijke doelen dan via een verplichte belasting of via verplichte maatschappelijke dienstverlening.

De voorkeur voor vrijwillige bijdragen is niet alleen psychologisch in de vorm van een ‘goed gevoel’. Een experiment van Harbaugh, Mayr en Burghart (2007) maakte deze voorkeur zichtbaar door middel van hersenscans van Amerikaanse vrouwen die een grotere activiteit in het ‘genotscentrum’ in de hersenen vertoonden als zij een bedrag aan een goed doel gaven dan wanneer hetzelfde bedrag namens hen door de experimentleiders werd gegeven. Er kan ook voor burgers een materieel voordeel zitten aan vrijwillige bijdragen in de vorm van vrijwilligerswerk. Er is veel onderzoek dat laat zien dat vrijwilligers gelukkiger zijn, grotere sociale netwerken hebben, langer gezond blijven en uiteindelijk langer leven dan maatschappelijk minder betrokken burgers.

Filantropie verhoogt de kwaliteit van leven omdat zij zich richt op de aanpak van maatschappelijke problemen en de realisatie van maatschappelijke idealen. Het besef groeit dat effectieve oplossingen een goede samenwerking tussen overheden, bedrijven en burgers vereisen. Een eenzijdige aanpak van bovenaf door een nationale overheid ligt steeds minder voor de hand. Bijdragen van burgers en bedrijven, in de vorm van maatschappelijk verantwoord ondernemen, vrijwilligerswerk, crowdfunding en actieve burgerparticipatie zijn welkom op uiteenlopende gebieden als integratie, cultuur, zorg, veiligheid, natuurbehoud en duurzaamheid.

De aandacht voor filantropie van de overheid is een herontdekking van een rijk verleden. Een mooi historisch voorbeeld is de manier waarop volgens de Amerikaanse journalist Russell Shorto (2005) de bouw van de Walstraat in Nieuw Amsterdam werd gefinancierd. Op Wall Street in New York, waar nu het centrum van het kapitalisme is gevestigd, stond ooit een muur die de inwoners van de stad tegen de indianen, de Engelsen en de Zweden moest beschermen. Omdat er geen overheid was die belasting kon heffen werd de bouw van de wal gefinancierd met vrijwillige bijdragen van de burgers van Nieuw Amsterdam, waarbij van de meer vermogende inwoners een grotere bijdrage werd verwacht. Zij hadden ook meer te verliezen bij een inval. Latere voorbeelden, dichterbij huis, zijn het Vondelpark, de Vrije Universiteit en de grote musea in Amsterdam: voor een groot deel gefinancierd met schenkingen van vermogende particulieren.

Met het beroep op burgers keert de overheid terug naar deze tijden. De omstandigheden zijn in sommige opzichten gelijkaardig. Opnieuw is er grote welvaart in Nederland, die opnieuw zeer ongelijk verdeeld is. Er zijn echter ook grote verschillen. De vraag om vrijwillige bijdragen komt in een tijd waarin burgers gewend zijn aan een overheid die voor hen zorgt. Bovendien komt de vraag in een tijd van economische onzekerheid en bezuinigingen op overheidsuitgaven. Het beroep op vrijwillige bijdragen vraagt veerkracht van burgers. De Rockefeller Foundation (2015) definieert veerkracht als de capaciteit van mensen, gemeenschappen en instituties om zich voor te bereiden op schokken en langdurige belasting, zich daar tegen te verzetten en ervan te herstellen. Veerkracht komt niet alleen tot uiting in zelfredzaamheid, maar ook in het mobiliseren van hulp en het aanboren van nieuwe hulpbronnen. Het gevoel van gemeenschap, het besef dat je met elkaar meer kunt bereiken dan alleen, en het vertrouwen in anderen helpen daar bij. Deze factoren zijn ook cruciaal voor de filantropie.

De sector filantropie is in Nederland in de afgelopen decennia niet gegroeid vanuit tegenslag en bedreiging. Integendeel. In de jaren ’90 hadden we geen last van crisis en groeide de sector als kool, nog veel harder dan de economie. De sector organiseerde en professionaliseerde zich. Er kwamen brancheverenigingen, gedragscodes, keurmerken, toezichthouders, er kwamen opleidingen en er kwam onderzoek dat de sector filantropie in kaart bracht. Die gehele ontwikkeling vond plaats in het laatste decennium van de jaren ’90 zonder dat er grote problemen waren. De filantropie is groot geworden in een tijd van voorspoed, zonder veel bemoeienis en grotendeels buiten het blikveld van de overheid. Vanuit de betrokkenheid van Nederlanders. Niet zozeer om maatschappelijke problemen op te lossen, maar ook – en misschien wel vooral – om idealen te verwezenlijken. Filantropie is de uiting bij uitstek van de veerkracht van de samenleving. Uit de filantropie van een samenleving blijkt waar burgers om geven, wat zij goede doelen vinden en hoeveel zij ervoor over hebben.

De economische crisis waarin Nederland in 2009 terecht is gekomen heeft een beroep gedaan op de veerkracht van burgers. Het zijn niet zozeer de korte termijn fluctuaties in de hoogte van inkomens, de werkloosheid of het consumentenvertrouwen die samenhangen met de lange termijn trend in het geefgedrag. Het gaat eerder om de economische zekerheid op de lange termijn: de waarde van giften van geld aan goede doelen houdt sinds 1965 gelijke tred met de ontwikkeling van de vermogens van Nederlanders. Sinds 1985 volgt de ontwikkeling in de hoogte van de giften in Nederland vrijwel exact de ontwikkeling in de hoogte van de waarde van onroerend goed.


Consumptieve bestedingen van huishoudens (nationaal) en totaal vermogen van huishoudens in de vorm van onroerend goed volgens het CBS en de waarde van filantropie door huishoudens volgens Geven in Nederland (niet gecorrigeerd voor inflatie)

De filantropie in Nederland lijkt minder gevoelig te zijn voor economische tegenwind dan die van de Verenigde Staten en het Verenigd Koninkrijk, waar de inkomsten voor goededoelenorganisaties flink daalden in 2008 en 2009 en daarna nauwelijks stegen. Pas in 2012 zagen de goededoelenorganisaties in de VS hun inkomsten weer toenemen. In Nederland bleef het recessie-effect uit tot 2011. Bovendien was het effect beperkt. We zien nu in 2013 weer een stijging van de giften. Dit is opmerkelijk omdat de waarde van onroerend goed in 2013 nog daalde. Ook de betrokkenheid van bedrijven bij goede doelen blijft hoog, ondanks de crisis. Het totaalbedrag aan giften en sponsoring is vrijwel gelijk gebleven.

Ook het overheidsbeleid van de afgelopen jaren heeft voor terugslag gezorgd. De overheid heeft taken gedecentraliseerd naar gemeenten, waardoor een groter beroep wordt gedaan op burgers om voor henzelf en hun naasten te zorgen. In de nieuwe cijfers over vrijwilligerswerk zien we een achteruitgang. In 2010 deed nog 41% vrijwilligerswerk, in 2014 is dat gedaald naar 37%. Ook het aantal uren dat vrijwilligers actief zijn is gedaald, naar 18 uur per maand. In 2012 was dit nog 21 uur. We zien wel veerkracht onder de loyale groep vrijwilligers, die juist actiever is geworden. Er is echter een grens aan de inzet van de trouwe vrijwilliger. Het toenemende belang dat de overheid in de participatiesamenleving aan mantelzorg en informele hulp hecht vormt op termijn een bedreiging voor het vrijwilligerswerk. We zien in het Geven in Nederland onderzoek dat informele hulp, mantelzorg en vrijwilligerswerk communicerende vaten zijn. Het hemd is dan nader dan de rok. Mensen stoppen vaker met vrijwilligerswerk als ze mantelzorgtaken erbij krijgen.

De overheid heeft bezuinigd op subsidies voor specifieke goededoelenorganisaties. Met name in de cultuursector hebben instellingen lastige keuzes moeten maken. Door de bezuinigingen op culturele instellingen is een beroep gedaan op de veerkracht in de sector cultuur. We zien hier grote verschillen tussen instellingen. De grotere musea van ons land zijn met behoud van subsidie in staat geweest om ook nog meer geld uit de markt te halen. Voor veel andere instellingen staan de inkomsten door bezuinigingen onder druk en zij lijken nog niet goed in staat meer inkomsten uit fondsenwerving en commerciële inkomsten te halen. Helaas blijkt ook bij de gevers de veerkracht beperkt te zijn. Vooralsnog zijn de bezuinigingen op culturele instellingen veel groter dan de toename in de giften aan culturele instellingen. Vermogende gevers zijn niet van plan meer te gaan geven aan cultuur.

De komende jaren zal duidelijk worden of vrijwillige bijdragen voldoende zijn om de schokken op te vangen die de economische crisis en de bezuinigingen door de overheid hebben veroorzaakt.  Zijn we als samenleving in staat deze betrokkenheid te mobiliseren? De aantrekkingskracht van het werk van goededoelenorganisaties is daarbij niet voldoende. Vermogende particulieren verlangen een meer zakelijke manier van werken dan gebruikelijk is bij veel goede doelen en hebben behoefte aan nieuwe financiële instrumenten die zakelijke investeringen in de kwaliteit van de samenleving mogelijk maken. Denk daarbij aan crowdfunding, social impact bonds, en ‘venture philanthropy’. De lage rentestand maken deze alternatieve vormen van investeren aantrekkelijker. In de geest van het convenant uit 2011 zou de sector filantropie in overleg met de overheid en het bedrijfsleven deze instrumenten verder moeten ontwikkelen.


Bekkers, R., Schuyt, T.N.M. & Gouwenberg, B.M. (2015, Red). Geven in Nederland 2015: Giften, Nalatenschappen, Sponsoring en Vrijwilligerswerk. Amsterdam: Reed Business.

Harbaugh, W.T. , Mayr , U., & Burghart, D.R. (2007). Neural responses to taxation and voluntary giving reveal motives for charitable donations. Science, 316: 1622-1625.

Rockefeller Foundation (2015). Resilience.

Shorto, R. (2005). The Island At the Center of the World. New York: Random House/Vintage.

[*] Deze bijdrage is deels gebaseerd op gegevens uit Geven in Nederland 2015 (Bekkers, Schuyt & Gouwenberg, 2015).

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One day I cycled back home from work when I suddenly found myself in a curious situation. Shimmering in the gutter lay a folded €20 bill. It was just lying there, between the fallen leaves, in front of one of those expensive homes that I passed by everyday. It was as if the bill called out to me: ‘Pick me up!’ I saw nobody coming from the house. But the road was quite busy with cyclists. There was a student a few meters behind me – I had just passed her – and I saw a man a little bit further behind me. I did not know the student, nor the man, who looked like a fellow academic.

I slowed down, and looked over my shoulder. The student and the man behind me slowed down too, but had not noticed the bill. I pulled over and picked it up. The student stopped cycling and got off her bike. The young woman looked me in the eye and smiled. I realized that I had been the lucky person to find the money, but that I was no more entitled to take it home than she was. “Is this yours?” I joked.

“Ehhm…no”, she said. Of course the money wasn’t hers. I had just asked her whether the money was hers to make me feel more entitled to take the money myself. It did not work. The money was not mine and I knew it. I had to find an excuse not to share the money. I bluffed. I held the bill in the air, made a ripping gesture and said: “We could split it…?” The man who was behind us had slowed down and looked at us. The student laughed and said: “Well, do you have a €10?” I realized I was trapped. Before I knew it I replied: “You never know”. I knew I did have a €10 bill in my wallet. I flipped it open, took out the €10 and gave it to her. The man frowned as he passed by. He certainly looked like an academic and seemed puzzled. I tucked away the €20 in my wallet. The student smiled and said “Thank you. Enjoy your day!” And I did. The sun shone brighter that day.

Later I realized that the incident with the money at broad daylight is curious not just because it was such a unique event. It was also curious because it is similar to a situation that I thought only existed in artificial experimental situations. Even on the day of the event I had been reading articles about ‘dictator game’ experiments. In these experiments, often conducted in psychological laboratories with students sitting alone in small cubicles, participants think they participate in a study on ‘decision making’ or ‘emotions’ but then suddenly get $10 in $1 bills. The students have not done anything to get the money. They just showed up at the right time at the right place, usually in exchange for a smaller ‘show up’ fee of $5. Their task in the experiment with the $10 is to decide how much of the $10 they would like to keep and how much they will give to an ‘anonymous other participant’. The receiver cannot refuse the money – that is why economists call the experiment a ‘Dictator Game’. The participant has the power to donate any desired amount, from $0 to $10. The payout happens in a separate room after the experiment. All participants enter the room individually and receive an envelope containing the money that their dictator has donated – if any. An ingenious procedure ensures that nobody (except the dictator, of course) will know who donated the money she receives. The recipient will not know who her dictator was.

Despite the unfavorable circumstances, participants in dictator games typically give away at least some of the money that they have received. In fact, the proportion of participants giving away nothing at all averages at a little over a third. Almost two thirds of the participants in these experiments donate at least $1. When I had first read about these experiments, I found the results fascinating and puzzling. Why would anyone give anything? There’s no punishment possible for not donating because the receiver has no power to refuse the money and because – except feelings of guilt. Without realizing that I had been in a real life dictator game, I had behaved as many students do in the laboratory.

Another reason why the incident with the money was curious was that it made me think again about theories on generosity that I had learned from reading articles in scientific journals. I thought I had gained some insights on why people give from these theories. But now that I had been in a real life dictator game, the ‘Generosity Puzzle’ seemed more difficult to solve. Why on earth do people give away money to people they don’t know? Why do people give money to people that they will probably never meet again, and who will not be able to give back what they have been given?

Because of the incident, these questions suddenly became personal questions. Why had I myself given away half of the money to a student that I did not know, and would probably never see again? Was it her smiling face when she asked whether I had a €10 bill? What if she had become angry with me and demanded half of the money? If she had not had the nerve to ask whether I had a €10 bill, I would probably have left with €20 instead of a €10. Or what if the student had been male? Would I have shared the money with him? And what if the man cycling behind us had joined our conversation? He had slowed down but had kept cycling. Though there is no easy way to split €20 into three equal amounts, there is also no good reason why the man had not asked for an equal share.

Perhaps a more remote influence had made me split the money with the student? Was it my parents who taught me the value of sharing? I remember a family holiday in Scandinavia with my parents and my brother when I was young. We paused on a parking lot and I walked around looking for stones. Suddenly I found three bills lying on the ground next to large truck. The money was a small fortune to me. Just as I had done when I found the €20 bill, I tried to find the owner, but there was nobody in the truck or anywhere on the parking lot. I gave the money to my mother. Upon our return to the parking lot at the end of the day, we found a parking fine on our car. The money I found went to the Oslo police.

Of course I also played a role in the event of the money myself. I could have just taken the money without saying anything. If I had not asked whether the money was hers, the student had probably gone home without any money from me. I offered to split the money because I felt lucky but not entitled to keep the money. You can keep money that you have worked for. If I had not endorsed this principle and if I had not felt lucky finding the money I would probably have kept it.

The incident of the money could have ended quite differently if the circumstances had been different and if the people involved had been different. Research on generosity shows that almost anything in the incident influenced the level of generosity that eventually took place. Though the incident was quite unique, it does share a fundamental property of generosity in being the product of a wide range of factors. It is not just the outcome of the values and personalities of the people involved – my gratitude, the justice principle, and the boldness of the student. Also more transient factors such as a good mood after a productive day’s work have an influence on generosity. Even seemingly meaningless characteristics of the situation such as the weather, the smile of a stranger and eye contact with a passer-by can have a profound impact on generosity. These factors have been studied by scholars in many different scientific disciplines who often work in mutual isolation. I hope my research efforts provide some useful pieces to the Generosity Puzzle.

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Philanthropic Studies: Two Historical Examples

This post was published earlier in the newsletter of the European Research Network on Philanthropy

The 20th century has seen a tremendous growth of scientific enterprise. The increasing productivity of scientists has been accompanied by a proliferation of academic disciplines. While it is hard to determine an exact time and place of birth, the emergence of a separate field of research on philanthropy – Philanthropic Studies – took place largely in the 1980s in the United States of America (Katz, 1999). Looking back further in time, philanthropy American Style obviously has European roots. My favorite example to illustrate these origins – admittedly slightly patriotic – is the way the hallmark of capitalism was financed, documented by Russell Shorto in his book The Island at the Center of the World. Wall Street was built as a defense wall by the Dutch colonists against the Indians, the Swedes and the English, funded by private contributions of the citizens of New Amsterdam. The contributions were not altruistic in the sense that they benefited the poor or in the sense that they were motivated by concern for the welfare of all. Neither were these contributions totally voluntary. There was no system of taxes in place at the time, but Peter Stuyvesant went around the richest inhabitants of the city with his troops to collect contributions, in monetary or material form. I imagine the appeal to self-interest was occasionally illustrated by a show of guns when contributions were not made spontaneously.


Today the study of philanthropy is spread over a large number of disciplines. It is not just sociologists, economists and psychologists who examine causes, consequences and correlates of philanthropy, but also scholars in public administration, political science, communication science, marketing, behavioral genetics, neurology, biology, and even psychopharmacology. Ten years ago, when Pamala Wiepking and I were writing a literature review of research on philanthropy, we gathered as many empirical research papers on philanthropy that we could find. We categorized the academic disciplines in which the research was published. The graph below displays the results of this categorization (for details, see our blog Understanding Philanthropy). The emergence of a separate field of philanthropic studies is visible, along with an increasing attention to philanthropy in economics.

After we had concluded our literature review, I detected a new classic. I would like to share this gem with you. It is an astonishing paper written by Pitirim Sorokin, a Russian sociologist who was exiled to the US in 1922. He founded the department of sociology at Harvard University in the 1930s. Before that, he conducted experiments at the University of Minnesota, and some of them examined generosity. The paper was published in German in 1928, in the Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie und Soziologie. It was not easy to obtain a copy of the paper. I managed to get one with the generous help of the staff at the University of Saskatchewan, where the complete works of Sorokin are archived; see I have posted a pdf of the paper here:


Working with two colleagues, Sorokin asked students at the University of Minnesota how much money they were willing to donate to a fund for talented students, which would allow them to buy mathematical equipment (‘diagrams and a calculator’), and varied the severity of need and social distance to the students. The experiment showed that willingness to give declined the with the severity of need and with social distance. Students were willing to donate more for fellow students who were closer to them but needed less financial assistance.

Sorokin also gave the participants statements expressing egalitarian and justice concerns, to see whether the students acted in line with their attitudes. The attitudes were much more egalitarian than the responses in the hypothetical giving experiment. He was careful enough to note that the results of the experiment could not easily be generalized and needed replication in other samples, a critique repeated forcefully by Henrich et al. (2010). Sorokin saw his experiment as the beginning of a series of studies. However, the paper seems to have been forgotten entirely – Google Scholar mentions only 7 citations, extending to 1954. This is unfortunate. The experiment is truly groundbreaking both because of its methodology and its results. More than 8 decades later, economists are conducting experiments with dictator games that are very similar to the experiment Sorokin conducted. Perhaps this brief description brings his research back onto the stage.


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(5): 924-973.

Henrich, J., Heine, S.J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). ‘The weirdest people in the world?’ Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33: 61–83.

Katz, S.N. (1999). ‘Where did the serious study of philanthropy come from, anyway?’ Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 28: 74-82.

Sorokin, P. (1928). ‘Experimente Zur Soziologie’. Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie und Soziologie, 1(4): 1-10.

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Filed under altruism, data, Europe, experiments, helping, history, Netherlands, philanthropy

Five challenging questions on philanthropy

The recent success of the Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS across the world raises numerous questions on philanthropy. In this post I give some background information to answer five of these questions.


1. Where will it end?

It is hard to predict how much money will be raised for ALS through the Ice Bucket Challenge. Some two weeks after the campaign really took off it has raised more than £100 million according to this UK source.  The growth of donations to the ALS Association in the US now shows signs of decline, suggesting that the campaign is losing energy.


Source: Tweet by Ethan O. Perlstein, August 29, 2014

If the S-shape in the graph above continues, total donations to the ALS Association in the US could reach $120 million.



2. Will other charities lose from the challenge?

It is often assumed that donors think about donations from a fixed annual budget: a dollar donated to the ALS Association cannot go to other charities. From this perspective, the Ice Bucket Challenge would come at the expense of other charities. However, it is also possible that the campaign does not affect other charities. There are many examples of campaigns that have not decreased amounts to other charities. In the Netherlands, the success of the Alpe d’Huzes bike rides against cancer has increased the amounts donated to the Dutch Cancer Society, while other health charities on average do not seem to have lost. Also for the Cancer Society itself the success of the bike ride has not come at the expense of regular fundraising campaigns, until questions were asked about the ‘no overhead costs’ policy promoted by the organizers of the event.

Also there is the possibility that people will donate more to health charities (or charities in general) because they become more aware of the need for donations. When I was nominated for the challenge by my wife my response was to donate to the Rare Diseases Foundation (ZZF), a Dutch foundation supporting research on a variety of rare diseases. My best bet is that the Ice Bucket Challenge is a fortuitous fundraising event that does not come at the expense of donations to other charities.


3. Is the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge ‘fair’ given the relative rarity of ALS as a disease?

Looking at all deaths in the course of a year, ALS is a relatively rare cause of death, as US data from the CDC show. Fi Douglas made a comparison with amounts donated, showing that donations do not seem to be directed towards the most lethal diseases.


Source: Tweet by Fi Douglas, August 23, 2014

In a paper I published back in 2008, I compared donations to charities fighting groups of diseases and the number of deaths that these diseases cause. Giving in Netherlands to health charities seems more needs-based. It should be noted that the relatively high donations to charities fighting diseases of the nervous system is not due to the Netherlands ALS association, but mainly to other health charities.



4. What is the effectiveness of donations to the ALS Association?

When people think about the effectiveness of donations, they often look for financial information about revenues and expenses. These numbers have limited value, but let’s look at them for what they are worth. According to its annual report, the Netherlands ALS association raised €6.5 million in 2013 and spent about €7 million on research, dipping into its endowment. The costs of fundraising approached €0.5 million, a relatively low proportion relative to the ALS Association in the US (ALSA). The ALSA annual report tells us the association spent $7 million on research in 2013, and $3.6 million on fundraising, having raised a total of $29 million. One could say fundraising in the US is less effective, more difficult, or simply more expensive than in the Netherlands.

However, these numbers tell us nothing about the effectiveness of Ice Bucket Challenge donations. Their effectiveness depends completely on how the millions that are raised will be spent. From my limited knowledge on ALS it seems that the development of treatments or drugs against the disease is not on the verge of a breakthrough. Even though it would be premature to expect an effective ALS treatment any time soon, the sheer size of the amounts donated now will enable researchers to make some big steps. Now the stakes have been raised, donors may expect a well thought-through strategy of the ALS associations to spend the money in a responsible manner. The challenge for the ALS associations across the world is to manage donor expectations: to carefully communicate the uncertainty inherent in the development of medical innovations while avoiding disappointment and anger among donors expecting quick results.

Moreover, some have questioned the utility of health research charities relative to other charities, saying that there are more effective ways to spend donations. In the Netherlands this opinion was expressed by my colleague from Rotterdam, Kellie Liket, in one of the major national newspapers, De Volkskrant. Some of the responses to this op-ed piece have identified the same substitution logic that we saw above; a logic that can be questioned. More importantly, the opinion depends on the assumptions made about what counts towards the ‘effect’ of a donation. If we count lives saved per dollar contributed, medical research does not have a strong position in the debate. We can save many more lives by donating to improve health and living conditions in developing countries, where life is much less expensive to begin with. The same $100 buys more health in a poorer country, all else being equal. But this is not the health of people we know, or the health of loved ones who have suffered from a disease. It is our greater empathy for people close to us that makes us donate more readily to certain causes than others.


5. Why should we give to a certain cause or organization?

Perhaps the most fundamental question raised by the Ice Bucket Challenge is a moral one. While research on philanthropy may show that we give out of compassion for people we know, there are many other reasons for people to give to charity. The joy of giving, aversion of guilt, being asked to give or seeing someone else give, the desire to obtain prestige, or simply an unexpected windfall or a ray of sunshine can motivate people to give. What we think of these circumstances and reasons is a different matter. The wisdom on the ethics of giving is much older than the 120 years of empirical research on philanthropy since Thorstein Veblen’s description of donations by the late 19th century New York elite as forms of conspicuous consumption. In the 12th century, Maimonides described eight levels of charity. Giving in response to a request is lower than anonymous giving; the highest form of giving would make recipients self-reliant and their dependence on charity disappear. Because of its largely public nature, the Ice Bucket Challenge can be placed on the lower rungs of Rambam’s Golden Ladder of Charity; but you can choose your favorite manner of donating in response to the challenge. And who knows: in the very long run, even your grudgingly accepted challenge and public donation may contribute to a cure for ALS – making victims of the disease less dependent on the charity of their loved ones.


Filed under altruism, charitable organizations, household giving, philanthropy, psychology, trends

Overheid vermindert giften aan ontwikkelingssamenwerking door bezuinigingen

Drie nieuwe onderzoeksresultaten verminderen de hoop dat burgers de overheidsbezuinigingen op internationale hulporganisaties zullen compenseren door meer giften:

  1. Bezuinigingen verminderen de investeringen van hulporganisaties in fondsenwerving;
  2. Mensen geven liever aan doelen die anderen ook steunen;
  3. Er zijn meer Nederlanders die zeggen dat ze mee zullen bezuinigen dan Nederlanders die meer zullen geven als de overheid bezuinigt.

Deze drie resultaten presenteerde ik vandaag op een seminar van NCDO in Den Haag. Meer details staan hier.

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