May 17, 2016
Imagine a snapshot of American giving. What would it look like? Would it portray an abundantly generous America, or show a dismal lack of involvement in charitable causes and civic society? In American Generosity: Who Gives and Why, sociologists Patricia Snell Herzog and Heather E. 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.
To write their book, Herzog and Price drew on the results of Notre Dame's Science of Generosity Initiative, a Templeton Foundation-supported effort to promote interdisciplinary approaches to the study of generosity in all its forms. The initiative's findings, and Herzog and Price's presentation of those findings, offer valuable insights for the individual giver as well as scholars, religious leaders, and nonprofit practitioners and fundraisers.
The book, which draws much of its data from a nationally representative survey of more than a thousand people, is organized into a "who, what, where, why, and how much" structure. Herzog and Price begin by defining generosity as "giving good things freely to enhance the well-being of others." Although they identify nine such forms of giving, the "Big 3" are: donations of cash, time spent volunteering, and political or civic activity. (The other six encompass a wide range of actions, including the donation of one's blood or organs, estate giving, environmentally sustainable consumption, the lending of one's possessions, and "relational" giving to friends and family.)
Having defined generosity and identified its constituent forms, Herzog and Price then look at how generous Americans are, and how social and demographic factors — age, race, gender, education, income level — and regional characteristics influence generosity — "zoom[ing] out," as they put it, "from the frame-by-frame snapshots [in the earlier chapter] and survey[ing] the overall landscape of American generosity with a wide-angle lens." It's a view, they add, that lends itself to a "glass half-full perspective," in that it allows us to "see that Americans are generally quite active in working to help others."
One of the ways Herzog and Price add nuance to their portrayal and "breathe life into" the "static quantitative snapshots" is by including in-depth interviews from twelve survey participants. And one of the most interesting aspects of their analysis is the finding that while resources such as time, money, and connections do influence whether and how much someone gives, they are hardly the only factors that shape individual generosity — and don't explain why individuals with few resources often give more generously than those who have more to give. Why that might be the case is the subject of the second half of the book.