Why Do We Give?: Building Community, Character, and Connection
Written By David P. King, PhD
Giving Tuesday has come and gone, and that’s just fine by me. I’m sure you too were inundated with emails from worthy nonprofits asking for your support. For me, Giving Tuesday serves as a chance to give a bit more to causes I already support or take a few chances on organizations new to me, while significant to other friends and colleagues. Although Giving Tuesday may be construed as the high point of the season of giving, it is still just one day. In our work at Lake Institute, we are known to promote generosity as a practice, a way of life.
Much of the research on giving in recent years has sought to get at motivations for giving. First, scholars have made the case that giving is good for you. As we have learned from Christian Smith and Hilary Davison, the Paradox of Generosity is that in giving we actually receive. Recently, the School of Philanthropy’s own associate professor, Dr. Patricia Snell Herzog compellingly made this case, Why You Should Give Your Money Away Today, in The New York Times. Beyond being persuaded that everyone (giver and receiver) “can benefit from giving in ways that matter to them, whether its financially, socially or personally,” philanthropic scholars also find donors are motivated to give based on strategy and effectiveness. The effective altruism movement perhaps best personified by Give Well, helps you determine where your gift can make the most difference. Whether it’s the joy of giving or measurable outcomes, many scholars believe we are motivated most by what is best for us or others.
Without really disagreeing with these reasons for giving, however, they leave me feeling something is missing. While not unique to faith-based giving, I do think the particularities of individuals shaped to give by their religious traditions are compelled by questions of community, character, and connection.
Laments of the fraying of our social networks are not new. As Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone brought to our attention in 2000, many have worried about the decline in affiliation and belonging to voluntary associations. Not only do we see declining membership and attendance in local congregations, but also in Rotary Clubs, Boy Scouts, etc. Of course, formal institutions are not the only way that we can find connection; surely we create new ways of belonging whether in person at the pub or online through social networks. Yet, reports of rising isolation, loneliness, and even suicide are hard to dismiss – particularly among young people. I believe practices of generosity can serve as an antidote to isolation and a tool for building relationships. Done rightly, giving fosters an exchange that goes beyond the transaction. It promotes our need to get outside ourselves, truly see someone else, and connect with something bigger.
If generosity is vital to building community, it is also central to shaping character. Philanthropic researchers continue to report the decline in the percentages of households donating any financial resources each year. In addition to the real issue of rising wealth inequality that skews more and more philanthropy to the largest donors, I believe the challenge of fewer donors is not in lack of opportunities to give, but the fundraising cultures we develop. Our School of Philanthropy colleagues Pamela Wiepking and Sara Konrath along with British scholar Beth Breeze, note from their own experience how often their children are confronted with charitable giving goals: bringing cans of food to church, competing to sell the most cookies for Girl Scouts, or running laps sponsored by friends and family to win prizes (and raise some money) for their local school.
From their research, kids are most often confused even why they are engaging in these charitable acts. None of these philanthropic activities are inherently bad, but they do shape our cultures of giving. Without any guidance or reflection, we can expect that these forms may become the social norms that guide our giving. Too often as parents, pastors, teachers, and community leaders, we may unwittingly expect that generosity in the next generation can be absorbed by osmosis. We assume that if we bring in cans of food for those in need or run races for cancer, then surely our children understand why. Fundraising and giving are not just mechanisms for moving money; instead, reflecting on these fundraising practices allow for an opportunity of character formation.
And that character formation through giving perhaps best happens if we reflect upon how and why we give. We know through our research that young people are more likely to grow up to be givers if they observe their family and others giving. They are even more likely to grow up to be givers if they not only see but also talk about that same giving. Beyond just taking the time to reflect upon our experiences, this is where our faith can be a tremendous asset. If giving leads to transformation instead of simply a transaction, we must seek connection through relationships with individuals, communities, and traditions. We make meaning when we take time to connect our giving to our beliefs and practices.
So this holiday season, when you write a check or make a gift online, stop to reflect on who might be affected by that gift or what might be done as a result. Take time as a family to talk about your giving and perhaps even volunteer somewhere together. Think about your giving not as a simple act or one-time investment, but rather as an ongoing practice of building a generous life over the long haul through community, character, and connection.
Insights, a bi-weekly e-newsletter, is a resource for the religious community and fundraisers of faith-based organizations that provides:
- Reflections on important developments in the field of faith and giving
- Recommended books, studies and articles
- Upcoming Lake Institute events