A revolution in giving – and trust

The less-well-off in America are giving more of their income than the wealthy, perhaps because it is easier to give through digital networks. But ordinary folks may also be bonding through charity as trust in government and business declines.

AP Photo
Chas McKhann has ice water poured on himself during an ice bucket challenge in Walla Walla, Wash., Sept 27.

With so much of what is called news focused on power and conflict, the real glue of society can often be overlooked. That glue is trust – between people or between people and their institutions. And the most important ingredient of social trust? Giving. So it is worth noting this news from The Chronicle of Philanthropy, based on an analysis of tax data:

From 2006 to 2012, “poor and middle class Americans dug deeper into their wallets to give to charity, even though they were earning less.”

Put another way, those earning less than $100,000 increased their giving by 4.5 percent even as their incomes have lagged after the Great Recession. Those earning more than $200,000, meanwhile, gave 4.6 percent less during that period – despite an increase in wealth.

If this trend sounds like a biblical parable, well, it should. The less-well-off in the United States have long given a disproportionately higher share of their income to others, and perhaps for good reason. Ordinary people can perhaps more easily empathize with the disadvantaged. They usually live among them, seeing them more as neighbors than intruders. Giving is their form of bonding to ensure a web of interdependence and mutual sympathy. Society rests on this bedrock of bigheartedness.

It may be difficult to tell what is driving the recent increase in giving by the poor and middle class. But here are two possible reasons: rising digital connectivity and less trust in big institutions.

First, the digital driver:

People relying on social media are rapidly forming new and dynamic communities of trust, such as peer-to-peer taxi services or Twitter enclaves focused on hot-button issues like climate change or human trafficking. The less-trustworthy in these networks of “friends” and hashtags can be easily shunned. Traditional institutions, such as government regulators, are often left out of the picture.

Even large charities can be blindsided. The “ice bucket challenge” that went viral on social media this past summer did not originate with the ALS Association, although the organization certainly benefited financially.

Giving is also becoming democratized through new Internet tools to check out a charity’s effectiveness or through new online courses that teach the techniques of low-level philanthropy. Multibillionaire Warren Buffett and his family, for example, offer an online how-to course called “Giving With Purpose.” And a new book by philanthropist Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, “Giving 2.0: Transform Your Giving and Our World,” offers profiles of “ordinary people with extraordinary generosity.”

Second, the shift away from traditional trust:

Worldwide, the financial crisis of 2007-09 helped accelerate a rising distrust in business and government, according to the Edelman 2014 Trust Barometer. Only about 17 percent of people around the globe trust those institutions to tell the truth or solve problems. Meanwhile, trust in private nongovernmental organizations, or “civil society,” has increased.

“In the West today, an inept response to a serious economic crisis is gradually depleting the capital of social trust built up in the past,” states Geoffrey Hosking, a British historian and author of a new book, “Trust: a History.”

With so much uncertainty about business and politics in Western democracies, it may be natural that America’s less-well-off seek greater interdependence through giving, reconfiguring the trust that holds their society together. It is not a revolution of the street, as in Ukraine or Hong Kong, but rather a revolution of the heart. And of the wallet.

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