Through an agreement with the Stanford Social Innovation Review, PND is pleased to be able to offer a series of articles and profiles related to the "business" of improving society.

Eight Myths of U.S. Philanthropy

Eight Myths of U.S. Philanthropy

In their 2008 book Understanding Philanthropy: Its Meaning and Mission, Robert Payton and Michael Moody define philanthropy as "voluntary action for the public good." By this definition, almost everyone has engaged in philanthropy. But one of the biggest myths about philanthropy is that it only refers to the giving of enormous sums of money by wealthy donors — the bigger the better. This myth is somewhat understandable: large gifts garner the most public attention. But it is also terribly misleading. It misses the significance of all kinds of actions, glorifies individual donors, and fails to recognize collective contributions. It can also blind us to how social change really happens.

For example, Julius Rosenwald, part-owner of Sears, Roebuck & Co., established the Rosenwald Fund in 1917 to assist the development of African-American schools in the United States, primarily in the South. The fund supported the creation of fivethousand institutions intended to close the education gap between black and white students. Rosenwald is frequently singled out as a philanthropic pioneer, but he was not the only, or even the primary, mover in combating the Jim Crow education system. As Clemson University historian Maribel Morey argues in a 2017 article for HistPhil, the picture of Rosenwald as a philanthropic hero overshadows others, like Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells, and Mary Church Terrell, who also fought racial oppression. 

If we believe that philanthropy is simply reflected in the donations of large gifts by wealthy individuals, we not only fail to accurately reflect what someone like Rosenwald achieved, we also miss the contributions of a wide range of people, including the individuals and communities who are the intended beneficiaries. Rosenwald had to battle resistance to the schools he funded, but so too did his collaborators and the African- American communities that had to raise funds to match his donations, while arguably facing greater risk and sacrifice. Yet even Rosenwald is still not widely as recognized as Rockefeller or Carnegie, who continue to receive the lion's share of attention as the iconic philanthropists. 

Myths that elevate and glorify major gift donors end up guiding philanthropic practice in ways that can hamper its advance. Efforts to improve understanding and examine assumptions and beliefs through rigorous research can prevent harm and better ensure that philanthropic efforts do good. The faculty at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy (IUPUI) have discovered that the landscape of knowledge about human generosity, while full of inspiring stories, is riddled with fictions.

Think of the missed opportunities in nonprofit fundraising because of the simple belief based on aggregate data that U.S. giving hasn't budged in years. Data from Giving USA indicate that American giving has been hovering around 2 percent of GDP for decades. A chart that captures giving to all causes suggests that American giving is permanently immovable. However, this impression rests on two false premises. First, it assumes that giving to fund one activity is interchangeable with giving to fund any other activity. Second, it assumes that understanding year-to-year giving requires nothing more than tracking the average.

Recognizing and unpacking these fallacies reveals that American giving has been changing dynamically over time. If all giving is divided into two components — for example, giving to charitable organizations that provide basic needs, human services, education, health, and the arts on the one hand, and giving to congregations on the other — one sees that the percentage of GDP given to charitable organizations has been growing. Simultaneously, the percentage going to congregations drops — not a surprise, because fewer Americans are claiming a religious affiliation. But even the decline in giving to congregations obscures the fact that many charitable organizations have a religious identity.

Another faulty assumption observers derive from charitable-giving data is that the same people donate year after year. This presumption is understandable, because most annual surveys find that around 50 percent of the population gives, in any specific year, to charity. However, research shows that over time the same people don't give consistently. For example, over an eight-year period, 87 percent of Americans give to charity, but 60 percent of these give every other year (or less often) to a specific charitable activity.Although annual surveys make it appear that half of the population consistently donates, there is a lot of movement under the surface.

Such misleading generalizations influence the mental maps of fundraisers in troubling ways. To understand the truths beneath the numbers in U.S. giving, fundraisers should follow at least two guiding principles: First, when encountering a philanthropic finding, always ask what type of giving is covered in the research. Second, view American giving as dynamic. Nonprofit fundraisers should move beyond encouraging people to give more dollars and instead encourage them to give more frequently. 

The misconception about the fixity of American giving is not the only misconception affecting the sector. There are further myths about ways to give, the benefits of big bets, the motivations of giving, and the demographics of who gives the most, among others. Below, we review eight prominent myths about U.S. philanthropy. By delving into the nuances underlying them, we hope to afford all nonprofits a running start at fundraising in support of their missions.

Myth 1: Religious Giving Is Declining. Religious affiliation and attendance at houses of worship remain two of the best predictors of giving to religious institutions. According to the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy's Philanthropy Panel Study, the decline in religious affiliation and attendance in recent years has coincided with the decline in the percentage of U.S. households making any kind of charitable donation in the past few decades. Giving to religious congregations has also declined, falling from 46.5 percent of U.S. households in 2000 to 31 percent in 2017.

But study co-author David P. King, director of the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, has shown that these numbers obscure complexities of giving across faith traditions and hide the diversity of religious institutions. The statistics focus on blanket trends affecting houses of worship rather than the broad array of faith-based nonprofits and the particularities of congregations' stories, which when considered paint a very different picture.

Below the surface, patterns of change in religious giving — even within houses of worship — reveal a wide variety of experience, not all of which are about decline. Furthermore, expanding the definition of religious giving beyond houses of worship demonstrates even more diversity and sustained growth that belies the myth that religious giving is in decline.

First, what qualifies as giving to religion is limited by definition. Giving USA 2019: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2018 follows the most widely utilized definition of giving to religion, which includes congregations, religious media, and missionary organizations. Yet this categorization does not include the tens of thousands of faith-based nonprofits across the United States that are providing education, social services, or humanitarian aid. If researchers identify religious organizations as only those entities that provide explicit religious services and education, they are using a limited perspective of religious giving.

At the same time, the National Study on Congregations’ Economic Practices (NSCEP), the largest nationally representative study of congregational finances in over a generation, finds that even with a narrow definition of "giving to houses of worship, such as churches, synagogues or mosques," 48 percent of congregations report revenue growth over the past three years, while among those with growth, roughly two-thirds report growth of at least 10 percent. Moreover, an additional 17 percent of congregations reported that their revenue held steady over the past three years, leaving only 35 percent that reported a decline. Even if fewer households are giving to houses of worship, not all congregations are experiencing a decline  in giving. In fact, many continue to grow. NSCEP finds that giving to congregations may not directly mirror overall declines in religious affiliation and attendance, and even if it is declining as a total percentage of charitable giving, it still remains the largest and one of the most vibrant sectors of philanthropy.

Second, we should be careful about portraying trends in religious giving with a broad brush. Diversity within congregations matters as well. Among Christian churches, for instance, NSCEP finds much more revenue growth among Protestants than Catholics. In addition, budgets of larger congregations grew more than smaller ones, with 60 percent of congregations of more than 250 members reporting growth in revenue over the past three years. We can further dispel the myth of declines in religious giving by noting that houses of worship and their giving patterns are not monolithic. Religious tradition, size and age of congregation, and regional context all are significant factors. Congregational leaders who develop innovative ways to bring in revenue in response to shifts in religious adherence and attendance may spur growth as well.

Finally, if we expand the definition of religious giving to include both houses of worship and faith-based nonprofits such as World VisionThe Salvation ArmyCatholic Charities USAAmerican Jewish World Service, or Islamic Relief USA, religious giving would make up 73 percent of all charitable giving. A broader view of religious giving demonstrates that, far from declining, religious giving may be expanding, and that donors may be shifting their giving from houses of worship to other faith-based nonprofits. In fact, in his recently published book, God's Internationalists, David P. King has shown that faith-based NGOs are now among the largest and most professionalized providers of humanitarian aid. The Salvation Army received donations of $1.4 billion in 2017 — the second-largest beneficiary of charitable giving among all American nonprofit organizations — and in 2018, after posting flat revenue for about fifteen years, its cash support increased by 5.7 percent. Another faith-based NGO, Compassion International, recorded the ninth-largest donation total in 2017, representing a dramatic five-fold increase in cash support levels over seventeen years, from $130 million in 2000 to almost $820 million in 2017.

Even faith-based nonprofits among America's twenty largest charities illustrate that the picture is more complex. From multi-billion-dollar organizations to small grassroots nonprofits, faith-based agencies continue to thrive. Faith-based giving may well be shifting — not only within congregations but also from congregations to a diverse set of faith-based nonprofits — but faith remains a major motivator of giving, and whether it stems from an explicit religious tradition or a broader sense of spirituality or ethical commitment, it continues to define the majority of giving in the United States. 

Myth 2: Women Are Less Philanthropic Than Men. A growing body of research shows that women play a distinct and powerful role in philanthropy, with shifting economic positions and social roles increasingly shaping women's philanthropy over the last forty years. Statistics reveal, for example, that women today comprise half of all workers on U.S. payrolls, up from just over a third a generation ago. And mothers today are the primary breadwinners or co-breadwinners in nearly two-thirds of American families, as the number of women who are unmarried has skyrocketed; indeed, 40 percent of women over age 25 are now unmarried and a record 40 percent of children born in 2007 were born to an unmarried mother.

The significant changes in the socioeconomic roles of women have implications for charitable giving. Spouses with higher levels of education, income, and/or knowledge of household finances tend to have greater control over financial decisions. These factors have resulted in more women-led nonprofit organizations and funding initiatives, which are playing an increasingly larger role in the sector.

Debra Mesch and Andrea Pactor at the Women's Philanthropy Institute (WPI) observe that the most significant predictors of philanthropic giving are education, income, and wealth — and more women today have increased access to all of these. Research studies show that when you take into consideration wealth, income, and education, women are more likely to give and also to give more money than men.2 Differences between men's and women's motivations for giving partly explain these findings. In general, women are more likely than men to engage in pro-social behaviors, which researchers often attribute to the higher motivation of women to help others.

Women have a long history of drawing other women into philanthropic collaboration. For example, Swanee Hunt and Helen LaKelly Hunt, the daughters of oil scion H.L. Hunt, decided to form Women Moving Millions (WMM), with the aim of raising resources to advance causes related to women and girls. And since its launch in 2007, WMM has inspired more than three hundred members to donate more than $650 million to such causes around the world.

In addition, women, like men, are giving large gifts. According to the Million Dollar List, individual women gave more than 1,686 gifts of $1 million or more from 2000 to 2016 — about 31 percent of all gifts made by individuals. Agnes Gund, president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art,3 established the Art for Justice Fund in 2017 in partnership with the Ford Foundation and contributed $100 million to it from the sale of a Roy Lichtenstein painting she owned. Sheila Johnson, the co-founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET) and founder and CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts, has given almost $13 million to higher education and human services since 2003.

Earlier  this year, MacKenzie Bezos joined the Giving Pledge and committed half of her $36 billion Amazon fortune to charity. In the letter announcing her commitment, Bezos writes, "My approach to philanthropy will continue to be thoughtful. It will take time and effort and care. But I won't wait. And I will keep at it until the safe is empty."

"Ms. Bezos' view of philanthropy is indicative of the way in which women engage in their giving," Mesch says. "Women are passionate about philanthropy and are highly committed, loyal donors. When nonprofits engage effectively with women as donors and volunteers, they can often foster long-lasting relationships."

What's more, in 75 percent of American households and 50 percent of high-net-worth households, couples make their day-to-day gifting decisions together. For nonprofit professionals, it's a reminder to include female spouses by name in family solicitation or cultivation processes. One bank CEO told us a cautionary tale: his wife contributed to a nonprofit, but the nonprofit sent him a thank-you letter, and as his wife continued to give, the nonprofit continued to send him thank-you letters. Eventually, she decided to stop giving to the organization. 

Myth 3: Immigrants Take — They Don't Give. The imposition of more barriers to legal immigration, along with the reduction in the number of refugees allowed entry into the United States and the deployment of active U.S. troops to guard the U.S.-Mexico border, has been fueled by the xenophobic stereotype of immigrants as takers rather than givers. But recent research by coauthor Una Osili, dean's fellow at the Mays Family Institute on Diverse Philanthropy, suggests that immigrants to the United States give back in diverse ways and at levels comparable to those born in the United States.

Data from the Philanthropy Panel Study (PPS), part of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), suggest that immigrant status does not have a statistically significant impact on the likelihood of or amount of charitable giving after controlling for income, education, savings, and other variables. In addition, a longer stay in the United States correlates with an increase in immigrants' charitable giving. Over time, participation and levels of charitable giving converge with those exhibited by U.S.-born citizens. Immigrant households are also less likely to receive assistance from governmental and nongovernmental sources, with statistics showing that immigrants and their children are less likely to be a burden on U.S. institutions.

As of 2016, 41 percent of immigrants residing in the United States were from Latin American countries. Latinx immigrants sent more than $68 billion to their home countries in 2015, dwarfing in volume other immigrant group remittances. Latinx immigrants also give to their churches and mutualistas.  According to a report from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, 63 percent of Hispanic households give to charity, compared with a little over half of U.S. households. IUPUI doctoral student Jamie Goodwin has found that immigrants support causes and give back in multiple ways, even if they don't necessarily give to nonprofits. For example, Goodwin observed that immigrants share meals, help one another find rides, look for work, and care for children and the sick. The pattern echoes other research.4

These data and examples highlight the value of understanding how charitable giving differs among various demographic groups. Philanthropic Service for Institutions director Lilya Wagner suggests that conducting prospect research into how immigrants give will improve multicultural communication, management, and fundraising — uncovering sources either overlooked or untapped. Because the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that the United States will become a minority-majority country by 2044, nonprofits should learn to adapt their practices to successfully engage with and fundraise from immigrant communities.

Myth 4: African Americans Are New and Emergent Donors. It has become customary to refer to African Americans as a "new and emerging" charitable giving demographic, with the phrase appearing regularly at conferences and in media coverage about philanthropy. the suggestion is that a large segment of the American population has suddenly started to give as if they never had given before.

Co-author Tyrone Freeman has shown that African Americans have participated in charitable giving for hundreds of years. Historical donors of African American philanthropy include James FortenColonel John McKeeMadam C.J. Walker, and Annie Malone. For example, New Orleans' Thomy Lafon, a free person of color born in 1810, supported the American Anti-Slavery Society and the Underground Railroad as well as local charities. In our day, Oprah Winfrey has donated more than $40 million to build a girl's school in South Africa and more than $400 million to educational causes overall, Forbes reports. Additionally, many of the donors who gave at the highest levels in support of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture were African American, including Winfrey, Robert F. SmithKenneth and Kathryn Chenault, and Franklin D. Raines and Denise Grant.

Over the past decade, African Americans — more than any other racial group — contributed the largest proportion of their wealth to charity, according to the Urban Institute. African-American giving is directed largely to black Christian churches, with half of the African-American donors surveyed for the 2015 Blackbaud report Diversity in Giving reporting that they donated to their place of worship, more than any other category. For generations, black churches have been the primary vehicles that teach the value of philanthropic giving and have most consistently treated and respected African Americans as donors. With the church as a foundation, African Americans have built mechanisms of giving to support both religious life and community activism in their quest for freedom and equality. These mechanisms include collaborative giving through fraternal and communal societies to sororities and giving circles such as the Black Benefactors in Washington, D.C., the Sisterhood of Philanthropists Impacting Needs in Denver, Colorado, and the national members of the Divine Nine. Organizations like the Young, Black, and Giving Back Institute, the Community Investment Network, and family foundations like the Mourning Family Foundation engage black donors at all income levels to support black advancement.

The only "new and emerging" phenomenon is the recent interest of mainstream nonprofit organizations in donors of color. But if nonprofits are serious about cultivating diverse communities, they must commit across their organizations to diversity and inclusion as well as dedicate time, resources, and attention to identify, solicit, and steward black donors on their own terms. It is essential to relate to African-American donors as individuals within a broader historical and cultural context that has shaped, and continues to shape, their giving.

Myth 5: Millennials Are Disengaged. National studies, such as those conducted by the General Social Survey and Bureau of Labor Statistics, have documented declines in youth participation in charitable giving, volunteering, voting, social forms of religious engagement, and other forms of political and civic activity. For example, research by co-author Patricia Snell Herzog shows significantly higher proportions of non-givers among people in their 20s and 30s than those 40 and older. 

Yet there are complications in segmenting trends by age over time, as Snell Herzog has pointed out. Examining age over time represents a tangle of two important social characteristics: generation and life stage. Generational cohorts include groups such as the millennials and boomers, which are characterized by their years of birth relative to important social events. For example, boomers grew up in the age of Vietnam, whereas millennials grew up post-9/11.

More than just generational cohort is captured in many of these studies. When comparing cohorts of ages at the same point of time, life stage is also embedded in the age categories. This includes whether the people whose rates are displayed are in later adulthood, young adulthood, or emerging adulthood (defined as the delayed onset of conventional markers of adulthood such as marriage and home ownership).

When scholars investigate changes in participation rates over time, some research indicates there is a "catch-up effect," whereby younger cohorts reach or even exceed the rate of participation of older generational cohorts once the younger cohort is at a later stage in life. For example, social science scholars Constance Flanagan and Peter Levine find that each younger generational cohort has a lower starting voting rate, but also that voting rates equalize around 70 percent by the eighth election since one first became eligible to vote (i.e., at a later life stage). In other words, the participation gap narrows over time.

Many standard surveys of youth engagement focus on giving to organizations, but organizational focus is less relevant to many young people today. For example, the General Social Survey asks whether respondents have "done any volunteer activities through or for an organization" during the past calendar year, and the Social Capital Index includes fourteen factors, of which four explicitly focus on organizations and many others strongly imply an organizational affiliation (e.g., "number of club meetings attended in the last year," "number of group memberships").

Millennials represent the first generation to transition to adulthood through the relatively newly identified life stage of emerging adulthood. These adults, and the younger generations following them, are motivated less by sustained commitment to particular organizations and more involved in episodic engagement with causes and issues. And this trend is not limited to the United States alone. For example, researcher Anne Quéniart of the University of Quebec, Montreal found that for all the young people studied, the cause was a more important motivation than was affiliation with particular groups or organizations. And researcher Richard Settersten of Oregon State University, along with communications and policy expert Barbara Ray, found that younger people are embracing a new model of activism on new media that enables more rapid and diffuse engagement.

With these behavioral tendencies in mind, charities that are interested in attracting young people may want to rethink their digital presence. It may be time to give their visuals and text a "face-lift" — to provide an immediate sense of engagement with the cause in order to draw visitors deeper into their website and mission.

Myth 6: Small Gifts Don't Matter. In an era where philanthropy experts point to the power of funders making bigger gifts over longer time periods to fewer causes to effect large-scale change, it's easy to assume that small gifts don't matter. 

But in cases of urgent humanitarian aid and disaster relief, where large-scale change means responding with alacrity to dire needs across entire regions and states, aggregate flows of small gifts become the lifeblood of campaigns to save lives, stem catastrophe, and repair communities. The added benefit of small gifts to nonprofits is that they can be the way a donor gets to know an organization, which in turn can inspire larger future donations. Small gifts develop relationships and are more easily repeatable (e.g., monthly giving).

After Hurricane Harvey struck the Texas Gulf Coast of the United States in 2017, more than one million donors gave gifts under $100 to the American Red Cross, which contributed $35 million in support of those needing immediate shelter, food, and relief items, and basic health and mental health services. These gifts also enabled the Red Cross to provide financial assistance for families and to build long-term recovery efforts for people working to put their lives back together.

Within three weeks of Nepal’s 2015 earthquake that left 9,000 dead and 22,000 homeless, humanitarian relief and development agency World Vision U.S. (WVUS) raised more than $7.2 million from 42,000 individual donors, who contributed an average of $171. Those dollars contributed to the rebuilding of homes, schools, hospitals, and civic infrastructure and afforded temporary shelter, schooling, and healthcare facilities in the interim. "These smaller gifts added up to crucial, flexible funding that gave us the ability to respond immediately to urgent needs of survivors," says Drew Clark, WVUS senior director for foundations and emergencies, who was in Nepal for the recovery effort.

WVUS, the American Red Cross, and other nonprofits have found that donors often start small and scale up their funding for social causes. For example, long-time WVUS supporters Dave Dornsife and Dana Dornsife first gave to the agency in the 1980s via a monthly child sponsorship, which at the time was less than $20 a month. Dave later traveled to Africa with WVUS to see the outcomes of sponsorships provided by members of his home church. From 2011-2015, the Dornsifes donated $35 million in matching funds to WVUS funds to expand access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) across ten African countries, a gift that catalyzed $256 million in total donations — and brought WASH to 8.6 million people.

The small monthly donations like those the Dornsifes first contributed add up over time: At WVUS in fiscal year 2018, such donations totaled $243 million representing about 60 percent of the total the organization spent to help poor communities improve health, education, and economic empowerment.

Myth 7: Endowments Just Tie Up Cash. Recent legislation enacted in the 2017 US federal budget bill requires colleges and universities with assets greater than $500,000 per full-time student to pay a 1.4 percent excise tax on annual endowment returns. While only thirty-five colleges and universities fall into that category, the legislation opens a door to taxing other nonprofits.

The proposal has prompted protests from the broader social sector, which cites the role endowments play in supporting long-term fixed costs such as research, facilities, HR, IT and financial systems, salaries, and scholarships, subsidies, or grants that provide those in need with greater access to social service programs. At issue is the question whether endowments serve to tie up cash that could be used to better effect or function as the lifeblood that allows nonprofits to plan for the long term and advance their missions.

Some say the answer lies in defining how much is too much. Indeed, particular nonprofits are so large — Harvard University's endowment is valued at over $39 billion, and the largest fifty U.S. foundations hold more than $890 billion in combined assets — that they raise questions of whether program-related disbursements can ever keep up with their endowment's growth. Other critics point to endowments that are restricted for arcane and discriminatory uses, such as the trust clause of chocolate bar scion Milton Hershey's eponymous Milton Hershey School, which stated that the school was intended to house only "poor, healthy, white, male orphans" before the stipulation was removed in 1970.

But many endowments provide long-term stability and flexibility when it comes to funding operations. Indeed, when the Ford Foundation hired the Bridgespan Group to assess its grantmaking practices, it found that more than half of Ford's grantees suffered from frequent or chronic budget deficits, while 40 percent had fewer than 3 months of cash reserves in the bank. This left them dependent on Ford’s annual program grants, which curbed investments in the very infrastructure needed to maintain high-quality staff and programs. To rectify the situation, Ford launched a financial-stability initiative, Building Institutions and Networks (BUILD), a $1 billion program that eventually will fund the long-term capacity and sustainability of up to three hundred social justice organizations.

the Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis has identified a need for large grants that facilitate long-term financial strength and resiliency in nonprofit organizations through the establishment of endowments. For example, in 2017 the local Indianapolis hunger relief agency Second Helpings received $7.5 million from the endowment — one of $328 million in grants that it has made to forty-nine organizations since 2015. Second Helpings used $6.8 million of the grant to form a restricted endowment and invested the remainder in infrastructure, including fleet, technology, and equipment upgrades. "Th[e] grant is specifically tied to [our] sustainability...[and] ensure that [we] can continue to be a resource for our community," said Second Helpings CEO Jennifer Vigran.

The reliable revenue an endowment produces can help a nonprofit weather policy changes and choppy grant cycles as well as fund unsexy but essential capabilities like finance and HR.

Myth 8: People Give Because They Are Altruistic. Nonprofits often appeal to donors' empathy and compassion — for example, through photos of emaciated or abused dogs to email campaigns tailored to tug at the emotional heartstrings. In reality, individuals not only give because they care but also for reasons that involve self-interest and/or other motivations, such as giving for tax benefits or out of admiration for a social entrepreneur leading a particular organization. Others give to enhance their social status — achieving immortality through having their name on a building (today a booming market at hospitals, universities, libraries, and museums).

Co-author Sara Konrath has been gathering data on how and why people give5 and has found many recent examples of narcissistically motivated giving. For example, in the summer of 2014 social media feeds were awash with people pouring buckets of ice water over their head to motivate donations in support of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) research. More than 17 million participants posted ice-bucket videos on Facebook, which eventually garnered more than 10 billion views from 440 million people. Donations to the organization surged nearly 3,500 percent compared with the previous summer, to $115 million. 

Konrath and her students surveyed more than nine thousand Americans about their participation in the challenge.6 The study asked respondents to self-evaluate their individual narcissism on a scale of one to seven, with seven being "very narcissistic." Thirty-four percent of respondents scored themselves higher than four — including 44 percent of millennials, who had the highest scores for narcissism among the generational cohorts surveyed.

The study also found that when narcissistic people participate in campaigns, their actions may promote awareness-raising more than donations. People who rated themselves more narcissistic in the study were more likely to post a video of themselves doing the challenge, but they were actually less likely to follow up with a donation. Meanwhile, less narcissistic people were more likely to donate but were less likely to post a video showcasing their participation.

These findings have implications for nonprofits seeking public support. There may be ways to harness narcissistic people's motivation as part of a broader campaign strategy, especially these days when social media participation is easy, involves a one-time commitment, and that contributes to one's online  profiles on social media while building awareness for a charity. Likewise, nonprofit professionals may need to strategically frame volunteering opportunities to connect with narcissistic motivations by creating channels of engagement that both satisfy the needs of the nonprofit and create important career connections, social media attention, or other social benefits for volunteers.

Each generation brings a unique context and life experiences to charitable giving. Fundraisers should regularly survey donors to identify their motivations and tailor requests — from mass appeals to major gifts — in ways that are most likely to attract donors across the motivational spectrum.

Commit to Myth Busting

Myths persist because of their cultural usefulness. We use them heuristically to save time in communicating, affirming that we are thinking along the same lines as others. Rather than superstitions, they are tools we use to make sense of things as we work and collaborate. That is why it is so important to examine myths for the things they don't include and how they may have outlived their usefulness. In the findings from our myth-busting research, we see see new ways to understand generosity that are already proving themselves in practice.

At the same time, we should not be afraid to question stories about where philanthropy comes from and what motivates it. Beyond financial giving, there are many other forms of generosity, including volunteering, advocacy, and caring for people, as well as various forms of corporate outreach, community and national service. We don't have a lot of data on those activities, but we are working on it.

Indeed, we are in the early stages of mapping the generative power of human generosity and both the intended and unintended consequences that result from its expression. Think of early maps that embellished the limited amount of information they contained with mythic creatures to infuse the document with more meaning. Our maps of philanthropy still contain mythic creatures, and our job as academics, funders, and practitioners is to identify them and to see where the data and evidence lead us, even if they confound established notions. Being prepared to be proved wrong, to be shown that a second look can open a new perspective, involves embracing an adventurous curiosity that can generate new solutions. 

Speaking of long-held myths, we Americans typically embrace a view of our exceptionalism in terms of the breadth and depth of philanthropy. Yet, as co-author Pamala Wiepking has pointed out, the data do not warrant such certitude about uniqueness of the U.S. and what is assumed to be its world-topping generosity. Based on their most recent worldwide survey of self-reported behavior, CAFAmerica and the Gallup Organization have both shown that Indonesia ranks at the top for civic engagement, while Myanmar boasts the greatest percentage of citizens reporting a donation in the past year. 

Most of the high-ranking countries overall on such indices of generosity are English-speaking, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. But it begs the question about whether English-speaking nations are truly more generous in terms of helping, giving, and volunteering, or whether the questions asked and the language used to frame those questions resonate more with or are better understood by people in such countries. And are they even the right questions to ask when studying generosity across countries?

This one example indicates that there are more myths of philanthropy than the eight we have highlighted, that they extend globally, and that they are promising targets for further research that will bring more useful knowledge to philanthropy.

More practically, we urge you not to make plans based on easy assumptions. Dispelling false certainties is an important technique in any field that hopes to make progress through learning. That said, the future for greater understanding of and improved outcomes in philanthropy is bright. 

Contributors to this article from Indiana University's Lilly Family School of Philanthropy include:

Lehn Benjamin is an associate professor of philanthropic studies and public affairs.

Amir Pasic is the Eugene R. Tempel Dean and professor of philanthropic studies.

Tyrone Freeman is the director of undergraduate programs and assistant professor of philanthropic studies

Patricia Snell Herzog is the Melvin Simon Chair and associate professor of philanthropic studies.

David King is the Karen Lake Buttrey director of Lake Institute on Faith & Giving and assistant professor of philanthropic studies.

Sara Konrath is the faculty advisor to the PhD program and associate professor of philanthropic studies.

Debra Mesch is the Eileen Lamb O’Gara Chair in Women’s Philanthropy and professor of philanthropic studies.

Una Osili is the associate dean for research and international programs, dean’s fellow at the Mays Family Institute on Diverse Philanthropy, and professor of economics and philanthropic studies.

Mark Ottoni-wilhelm is a professor of economics at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and affiliate faculty member of Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

Andrea Pactor is the interim director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute.

Patrick Rooney is the executive associate dean for academic programs and professor of economics and philanthropic studies.

Genevieve Shaker is an associate professor of philanthropic studies.

Pamala Wiepking is the Visiting Stead Family Chair in International Philanthropy and visiting associate professor of philanthropic studies.

The authors would like to thank Abby Rolland Price and Katie Smith Milway for their assistance developing this article.



1. Patrick Rooney, Mark Ottoni-Wilhelm, Xiaoyun Wang, and Xiao Han, "Dynamics of American Giving: Descriptive Evidence," working paper, Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, 2019.

2. Debra J. Mesch, Patrick M. Rooney, Kathryn S. Steinberg, and Brian Denton, "The Effects of Race, Gender, and Marital Status on Giving and Volunteering in Indiana," Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 4, 2006. Patrick M. Rooney, Debra J. Mesch, William Chin, and Kathryn S. Steinberg, "The effects of race, gender, and survey methodology on giving in the US," Economics Letters, vol. 86, no. 2, 2005.

3. Kathleen E. Loehr, Gender Matters: A Guide to Growing Women’s Philanthropy,
Washington, DC: CASE, 2018.

4. Bradford Smith, Sylvia Shue, Jennifer Lisa Vest, and Joseph Villarreal, Philanthropy in Communities of Color, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1999.

5. Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, New York: Atria Books, 2010.

6. Sara Konrath, Meng-Han Ho, and Sasha Zarins, "The Strategic Helper: Narcissism and Prosocial Motives and Behaviors," Current Psychology, vol. 35, no. 2, 2016.