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An Art and a Science

The concept of the human brain. The right creative hemisphere versus the left logical hemisphere. Education, science and medical abstract background.

by Meredith McNabb

By my credentialing, it might appear as if I am a “master of divinity”—though I can assure you that my M.Div. degree might have done more to assure me of how very little I even can master about the ultimate nature of the divine than anything else. I was reminded of my research-scientist-spouse’s raised-eyebrow reaction to the name of that degree as I participated in the 2022 Science of Philanthropy research conference, held at the NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis September 21-22. Across the event, there was an underlying discussion about the degree to which one might rightly study philanthropy as a science versus the degree to which it is an art and a practice.

Science of Philanthropy

Development practitioners in attendance at the conference periodically noted that, for instance, they never, ever use multi-line statistical equations in the work they do on their side of philanthropy, despite the impressive regression analysis tools being presented by the scholars researching donor behavior, organizational purpose, and more. It was a lively and interesting conference pulling together top scholars and practitioners across the globe to dig into some of the practices and assumptions about philanthropic giving, and all signs pointed to participants from both the art and science sides of the field coming away with new insights.

The keynote address particularly captured some of the tension and notably provided many of the new insights – the University of British Columbia’s Dr. Azim Shariff presented “Religion and Prosociality: New Data on Old Questions.” Dr. Shariff described himself as being like an increasing number of mid-career adults: he is now among the religious “nones” after growing up in a religious family and spending his young adulthood among atheistic skeptics. Now as a professor, and the chair of UBC’s Centre for Applied Moral Psychology, he is neither part of, nor hostile to, the practice of religion—and he’s very interested in how religion affects people’s positive “prosocial” behavior like generosity and volunteering (and how it reduces their negative, “antisocial” behavior like crime, cheating, or violence.)

Religion and Prosociality

As someone thinking and talking about how religious people and religious organizations practice and encourage generosity of time and money, I found all kinds of new science-backed insights in Dr. Shariff’s presentation—and I found that nearly all of them resonated strongly with the practitioners I know who are elbow-deep in the art of considering giving. For one point, Dr. Shariff demonstrated that religious people tend to think they’re quite a bit more pro-social than they are, though there is certainly a positive correlation between religiosity and socially desirable practices like charitable giving. I think anyone who has made a fundraising appeal to a religious congregation might say mirrors their mixed on-the-ground experiences of the generosity of people of faith!

Dr. Shariff’s research dug in far deeper than observation, however, using the tools of social science to test out observational hypotheses about giving behavior. One aspect of his research looks at the degree to which religiosity encourages generosity toward one’s own community versus how it encourages (or not) generosity toward an “out group”. Utilizing the new discipline of “adversarial collaboration” in working with research partners who had an opposite initial hypothesis to his own team in order to reduce bias and strengthen findings, Dr. Shariff described a worldwide phenomenon in which faith appears to spark notably increased generosity toward one’s “in group”—but also sparked increased generosity toward out group members. While religious practitioners—or alumni of Lake Institute educational programs!—might cite Maimonides’ fifth and seventh rungs on the ladder of giving where the giver doesn’t know who the recipient is at all, or the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan to talk about the prosociality of out group generosity—it was fascinating to see the statistical breakdown of how religion does indeed prompt generosity, and how room remains for religious people to grow in their generosity beyond their own parochial affiliations.

It’s even more fascinating to see it demonstrated in a controlled laboratory setting matching US Evangelical Protestants with US Muslims, or Fijian Christians with Fijian Hindus, or Israeli Jews with Palestinian Muslims. In each of those pairings, one of the ways that the impact of religion was measured was to invite would-be givers to think about God [named in a manner as would be meaningful to their context], and later on they were asked to make a gift (or not) of their choice within the experiment—and thinking about the divine did indeed spark the religious people to give more generously to both in-group and out group members.

An Art and a Science

This is not necessarily to encourage directors of development in religious settings to be sure to ask their donors to think about God before they invite donations—it’s not a best-practices-in-fundraising kind of study! And for most of us serving in the field of practical generosity in congregations and nonprofits, “a controlled laboratory setting” is about the farthest from what we’ll ever encounter in our work—we are developing the art of building relationships and discovering shared meaning through generosity. But please know there are top-notch scholars successfully applying academic rigor to the questions of somewhat inscrutable meaning about the divine and the nature of generosity, and all of us appear to be discovering truths that resonate across the art and science of our field.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Thinking as a scientist, how do you see religion impacting generosity and volunteering in your community?
  2. What do you notice in your work about “the art of building relationships and discovering shared meaning through generosity”?

Expanded Perspective

by Xiaonan Kou, Associate Director of Research, IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy

Xiaonan Kou

When I was in graduate school, one of the questions that I got asked the most (only slightly less often than “when are you going to finish your dissertation”) is “what do you study?” After I answered that I studied philanthropy and nonprofits, the common follow-up question is “oh …… so you study how you ask people for money?” Well, yes and no. Indeed, the art of fundraising is part of what I study, but just one part. What fascinates me the most is how interdisciplinary scientific approaches can help us better understand philanthropy and inform philanthropic practice.

In my work as a researcher in the field of philanthropic studies, practice often inspires research. We are seeking to better understand philanthropic culture, history, and behavior using the tool of science. Statistics is one of the common, effective approaches that we use to collect and analyze data in order to identify patterns, trends, and relationships that can be generalized to a larger population. For example, we wanted to know if and how charitable giving has changed over the past decade in the U.S. We analyzed data from a large national panel study that follows the same families over years on their giving behavior. Thanks to statistical techniques, we can reasonably generalize the results from this dataset to all American families.  The statistical analysis revealed a steady decline in the percentage of American households who donated to charity since the Great Recession, dropping from 65% of families donating in 2008 to about half (50%) in 2018. Using rich data on individual characteristics from this same dataset, we developed Give-O-Meter, an interactive tool for people to see how their own giving and volunteering compare to others like them.

Sometimes we are interested in how changes in one factor alone make a difference. Experiment is an effective approach for this, because it allows us to isolate the effect of a specific factor from the compound effects of other factors that also come into play. The experiment conducted by Dr. Azim Shariff that was discussed in Meredith’s article above is a great example. In that study, whether or not participants were asked to think about God is the particular factor that was being tested. Similarly, in a study that investigates the effectiveness of fundraising messages in establishing a connection to new donors, we tested three types of messages—a short video, an email with text and a picture, and a short narrative only.  Each participant was randomly assigned to receive one of these three types of messages. Except this, all other information that all participants received was the same. The findings suggest that video was more effective because it induced empathy and thoughts about moral principles, without inducing negative feelings like distress, sadness or guilt at the same time. Such “a controlled laboratory setting” is indeed exceedingly rare in our lives, but this research approach helps us uncover the effect of one factor while holding everything else the same. It’s useful to know the effect of one piece before we put together millions of pieces in the real-life puzzle.

Just as we say that there are a thousand Hamlets in a thousand people’s eyes, everyone defines and understands philanthropy differently. Each country also has its own unique environment, which shapes the complex ecosystem that nurtures, or hinders, the growth of philanthropy. In our Global Philanthropy Environment Index project, we study the enabling environment for philanthropy in 91 countries and economies. Country-based experts were invited to complete a questionnaire sharing detailed information on country-level factors, such as laws and regulations, government policies, economic conditions, as well as values and traditions. These factors cannot be easily captured by formulas or statistical techniques. The use of an expert questionnaire provides a common framework for us to assess the fluid and complex ecosystem, while also allows the flexibility to capture the diverse perspectives and practices of philanthropy across countries and cultures.

Philanthropy itself is both art and science. They are really not the two opposite sides of a coin; instead, they share a lot in common. Among others, they are both driven by passion and curiosity, and both require imagination and creativity. These are what I see every day in my work as a researcher who studies philanthropy.

Xiaonan (Coco) Kou is the Managing Director of Research at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Her main research interests include individual prosocial behavior, empathy, and cross-cultural philanthropy. With a background in Computer Science, she also loves data visualization. In addition to research, Coco is passionate about improving the access to quality education for disadvantaged children and about promoting cultural and educational exchanges across countries. She co-founded Tianjin United Education Assistance Foundation (TUEAF), one of the first non-governmental public-fundraising foundations in China, in 2005 and continued serving on its board for a decade. Coco received her Ph.D. degree in Philanthropic Studies from Indiana University and her Master’s degree in Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins University.

American Generosity: Who Gives and Why

USD in the shape of a flowerThis book review from Philanthropy News Digest, explores American Generosity: Who Gives and Why, written by sociologists Patricia Snell Herzog and Heather E. Price. Does American giving portray an abundantly generous America, or show a dismal lack of involvement in charitable causes and civic society? Herzog and Price address this question using a variety of methods with the goal of both broadening and deepening our understanding of how generosity is expressed, what fuels it, and what can be done to encourage more of it.

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DATE: October 11, 2022
TOPIC: Research and Scholarship
TYPE: Article
SOURCE: Insights Newsletter
KEYWORDS: Generosity, Philanthropy
AUTHOR: Meredith McNabb, Xiaonan Kou