Measuring generosity in communities
Gisborne is a place known for its sunshine hours and great surf beaches. However I have a different memory of the town after a recent visit. It was raining and I was umbrella-less so consigned to getting wet on my walk into work. As I trudged down the footpath a local woman walking back from town crossed the road and offered me her umbrella. She said “I’m almost home and saw you coming out of the motel grounds. Feel free to use my umbrella and just leave it beside my mailbox when you get back.” Her gesture made me smile all day.
As I continued into town – dry – I wondered would I be thoughtful enough to do the same for someone else. Well if not before, I would now. At its heart, generosity starts as an individual act … perhaps looking after family members, volunteering, or giving to charity. Yet perhaps it is also representative of the wider community. There are various datasets that give us an inkling as to how people give.
The biennial New Zealand General Social Survey (NZGSS) asks people if they have volunteered for a charity or organisation in the four weeks prior to the survey (the census asks the same question). The 2014-15 results found that almost a third (30.6%) of all kiwis were involved in formal volunteer work for a group or an organisation.
- women were slightly more likely to volunteer than men (31.7% compared to 29.5%).
- unemployed people volunteered more than those in employment (34.7% compared to 30.7%).
- people with higher levels of household and personal income were more likely to undertake volunteering work.
- older people were more likely to volunteer than younger people.
How does New Zealand compare to the rest of the world?
I want New Zealand to be a kind, giving place (just like I want to feel I would be as generous as my Gisborne benefactor!) For that information we need to look at the World Giving Index, gathered by the Charities Aid Foundation. This is the only global study that captures evidence to measure the scope and characteristics of generosity in the world.
The Index, which surveys 153 countries, focuses on three aspects of giving behaviour:
- donating money to charity
- helping strangers, or someone you didn’t know who needed help
The last point goes right to the heart of my Gisborne experience. The index uses the same parameters as the NZCSS – respondents have to be over 15 and they reflect on their activity in the prior month.
World Giving Index 2016
Top 5 countries in the CAF World Giving Index with score and participation in
|Country||Overall rankng||CAF World Giving Index score||Helping a stranger average (%)||Donating money average (%)||Volunteering time average (%)|
|United States of America||2||61||73||63||46|
The findings of the World Giving Index place Myanmar at the head of the list for the second time in a row. Notably, their score for donating money was particularly high. In prior years the USA had recorded high readings in this area and much is made of massive donations from the very rich in America. A 2017 example is Paul and Susan Dell’s gift of $1billion to various foundations. Yet research in the USA shows that it is those who aren’t so rich who show the most generosity.
One of the most surprising, and perhaps confounding, facts of charity in America is that the people who can least afford to give are the ones who donate the greatest percentage of their income. In 2011, the wealthiest Americans—those with earnings in the top 20 percent—contributed on average 1.3 percent of their income to charity. By comparison, Americans at the base of the income pyramid—those in the bottom 20 percent—donated 3.2 percent of their income. The relative generosity of lower-income Americans is accentuated by the fact that, unlike middle-class and wealthy donors, most of them cannot take advantage of the charitable tax deduction, because they do not itemize deductions on their income-tax returns.
The USA research on donations seems to contradict the NZGSS results which found that those with higher incomes tend to volunteer more, though perhaps volunteering is different from making donations? Or maybe the USA is different from New Zealand.
Why are some people more generous than others?
So, the bigger question still remains as to why some people are more generous than others. Perhaps my Gisborne helper had walked to town without an umbrella once too often. It may be that empathy drives behaviour. The ability to understand what another is going through does not need to be developed through experiencing the same challenge. It can simply mean having exposure to others in need. Research on the ZIP codes of charitable giving in the USA revealed that those on high incomes who lived in homogeneously affluent areas were less likely to give that those on the same high incomes who lived in more diverse neighbourhoods.
Empathy or not, I think that there is a viral element in generosity. A “pay it forward” factor. Gisborne people didn’t seem particularly surprised – “that’s what you get from living in a small town” was the comment I heard most. On an individual basis, the seemingly small act of lending an umbrella uplifted my day. I told people about the kindness and this may have encouraged generous behaviour in others. But most importantly, experiencing generosity encouraged me to be more giving.
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