Episode 7: The Generosity Game

Everything feels like a competition these days. Who is more generous: conservatives or liberals? There’s no easy answer, but data does show that both parties have become less generous in recent years. 

SOURCE: Giving USA
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Karen Norris/Staff

Editor's note: This page includes a transcript of episode seven of Perception Gaps, "The Generosity Game." To listen to the episode, please visit csmonitor.com/perceptiongaps.

SAMANTHA LAINE PERFAS: Today's episode is about generosity, and what factors go into how generous you are. Random question: if you had to guess who is more generous, churchy American conservatives or bleeding heart liberals? You might immediately say conservatives... Or liberals. The answer: it's both or neither. And that's a perception gap.

I'm Samantha Laine Perfas and this is Perception Gaps by The Christian Science Monitor. When I asked you who was more generous, my guess is you claim that your party is whichever party that is. And that's what a lot of people think. In the US, liberals and conservatives each say they are more generous than the opposing party. Recent survey results show that 95 percent of Democrats believe liberals are a more charitable group. While 81 percent of Republicans believe conservatives are more charitable. So who is right? Over the past 10 years, the popular press has highlighted studies showing that conservatives tend to outgive liberals. But that's really just the tip of the iceberg. The fact of the matter is, we're all getting worse - much worse - at being generous. And we'll get into that in a few minutes.

MICHELE MARGOLIS: We find that the single sentence takeaway is that Republicans do in fact give more money than Democrats. But the story is more complicated than that.

PERFAS: This is Michele Margolis, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. She does a lot of research on the intersection between religion and politics. The hard numbers show that Republicans are more generous and religion is a big part of that.

MARGOLIS: Republicans are more religious than Democrats. They are more likely to identify with a religious community and they're more likely to go to church. And that matters a lot because when we talk about charitable giving and when it's measured in surveys, donating to one's house of worship is considered a charitable act. It's something you can write off on your tax returns, for instance, because churches are nonprofits in the US. And so what we find is the charitable gap that you see when you just look at the absolute amount of giving between Republicans and Democrats is basically completely driven by Republicans donating not just to religious organizations but actually to their own house of worship, to their own church and community, and their own church and religious community. Whereas when you look at religious organizations that aren't affiliated with the church, or secular organizations where you can donate, then you don't see a partisan gap emerge and in fact with secular organizations you see Democrats donating more than Republicans.

PERFAS: I saw one Survey Monkey study actually that looked at, or asked people what their motivations were for giving, and the reason that most Democrats gave was to support the greater good. And for Republicans, the reason they gave most often was to give to a specific group or charity. So that kind of lines up with, I guess what you found and I just think that's really interesting and I'm curious if you have any thoughts on why those motivations might be different or how that might sort of play into the bigger picture?

MARGOLIS: I think the motivations matter a lot because it affects how much you're giving and to whom. Another reason why people might be giving more to their own churches is because you're part of a community where it may be private giving but it actually might be more public. You might know what other people are giving or what other people pledge to give and so you're part of this community where there's a peer pressure involved. You want to not be seen as the person who's not caring his or her fair share, or carrying his or her weight, I guess is the phrase. Whereas Democrats, if they're giving broadly to lots of kind of secular organizations that aren't, they're not necessarily, the people are, the Democrats are not necessarily an integral part of there's less oversight. They may feel less pressure to donate. So the Democrats and the Republicans in addition to giving to different charities they might actually have different motivations for giving.

PERFAS: What are some of the implications of what you found like, okay, so if we know conservatives are more likely to give financially for whatever reason, does this give us a better or a different understanding of how Americans operate or like, how am I supposed to use this information I guess?

MARGOLIS: If I was a nonprofit I would want to know who I could and should target. And the answer is you shouldn't target based on party ideas because there isn't actually a difference. And I think for you as a society, I think that this is a really important indication that politically we're not as divided. There's a lot of research out there showing that we're very divided politically and I think in a lot of respects we are, but it's not that Republicans and Democrats, it's not that something about our political identity is shaping how we engage in this completely apolitical activity and like giving to charity. From a political angle, maybe this is a little bit of positive news that we're actually not as different as every time you open the newspaper and we think, oh Democrats and Republicans are dissimilar on everything. This is something where maybe we're not.

PERFAS: So maybe the two political parties aren't that different at least when it comes to giving money. Our next guest is Nathan Dietz with the Do Good Institute in University of Maryland College Park. And he's going to talk about a different kind of generosity: giving our time. He found that much like giving money, you won't find a big partisan divide in volunteering either. But what I found to be really interesting was the fact that in general volunteering is going down. Here's our conversation.

PERFAS: You're working on some new research now that looks at the trend of volunteering overall in the US. What have you found? What is the status of kind of overall volunteering?

NATHAN DIETZ: What we've noticed I think after 2012, the volunteering rate has dropped considerably. But at the national level, and I don't think anybody expected that.

PERFAS: Right after September 11th, volunteering reached an all time high in the US. From 2003 to 2005, it was at its peak. It then dropped a little bit but bounced around over the next seven to eight years. And then we get to 2013.

DIETZ: It was really unexpected, I think to see in 2013 that there was a big drop in the volunteer rate, another big drop in 2014, and the third one in 2015. So the end result is that the volunteer rate in 2015, which is the last year for which we have data from the source, is the lowest that we've seen probably since the late 80s.

PERFAS: That is kind of crazy. You know, it's like, we we start thinking, oh my party is more generous but it's like well, whatever party you're from, we're all getting really bad at volunteering and being generous with our time and I guess that's not what I would have expected at all.

DIETZ: Well I think that's, I think other people are noticing the same type of thing when it comes to when it comes to donating money and there was recently a piece published by the Friends of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University and they're the engines behind the great Giving USA report which is published every year, which is a huge comprehensive national snapshot of giving. And what they've noticed is even though their headline, their top line statistic every year is that the amount given by people from all sources for the last few years has reached an all time high, even controlling for inflation, behind the scenes the participation rate for donation has been declining.

PERFAS: So just to kind of recap that, the people, there are less people who are opting in and giving money or volunteering their time. However, the people who still give or volunteer are just doing more of it. So they are almost like super givers.

DIETZ: Yeah I think that's what a, that's a conclusion that you draw. And that raises a couple questions. One is, is this sustainable? Then when you think about volunteering then, I think it's easier to see it when you when you think about donations because we all think of volunteering as a is something that we'd like to try to fit into our lives. If anything I think most of us feel like we would want to do more volunteering but life, our other life obligations limit the amount of time that you can actually devote to volunteering. And that's just a reality for many people.

PERFAS: Is there anything that gives you hope that the number of people contributing whether it's financially or with their time, that that will improve, you know, that we may see ourselves go back up instead of kind of continuing this decline of volunteering?

DIETZ: Well I can speak for, I can speak for myself and others here on campus, but, the younger generations I think are of course they're the key to whatever the future is going to look like is based largely on what the younger generations are doing now and what they're going to do as they mature and and get themselves established as members of their neighborhoods and communities and the larger society. I think that what makes me optimistic on a daily basis is just looking around at the students here on campus and all the good things that they're doing. And the motivations behind the work that they're putting into to doing good. I think that what we, our obligation I think is to try to figure out how to, how to make those opportunities available for more young people, just to get them to realize that the reason why a lot of people feel like this is something, doing good is something that everybody should do, it's because it's attainable. You can, it's feasible for you to go out there and do something that is actually going to help some people. You can do more and have a bigger impact if you work with other people to try to build something that has more of an impact. The more you do, the more enjoyable it is, and the more likely it's going to be that you'll be making this life long, that you'll be doing this for the rest of your life.

PERFAS: Later I asked Nathan why volunteering and even giving has gone down in the US. He said that while his research hasn't looked into this question, he cited one study that found that because people now value autonomy so much, there have been increases in self centeredness and decreases in empathy for others. There's also been a weakening in the confidence of religious institutions. Essentially we're seeing an overall decline in civil participation. For me I can't help but wonder are there other benefits to generosity?

MICHAEL NORTON: If it's not that money is the key to happiness. But given that we spend so much time thinking about money, what are the ways that we can spend it to make ourselves happier?

PERFAS: Michael Norton is a professor at Harvard Business School. He also co-wrote the book "Happy Money" with Elizabeth Dunn. They found a really cool connection between generosity and happiness.

NORTON: One of the things that we focused on in our book which I wrote with Liz Dunn is the idea that the ways that we typically or habitually spend our money are not wrong, they just don't pay off and that much happiness. So for example the amount of money or the percent of your income that you spend on stuff, which is most of what we spend our money on, is totally uncorrelated with how happy you are with your life. It's not negative. So buying stuff actually isn't bad. It just doesn't do much for you. And so what we really wanted to do was see if we could identify other things you could do with your money that might actually produce more happiness.

PERFAS: Did you find a connection between giving and happiness?

NORTON: One of the first things that we did was we just asked people how they spent their money. So you could take your credit card statement right now and just go through it at the end of every month. First off it's depressing. You could just go through it and categorize things you know: was this stuff for me? Was this a gift for somebody else? Was this a bill? All sorts of categories you could make. And you can actually see how much money you spend on different things. Typically people spend a lot of money on themselves. Of course you know we need to pay rent and mortgages and buy clothes and things for ourselves, but they spend a lot on that and very little on, for example experiences and very little on giving to other people, whether that's charitable donation or gifts for someone else. What we find is that the spending on yourself doesn't seem to correlate with your happiness, but the percent of your income that you spend on others is a strong predictor of how happy you are with your life in general. In other words people who habitually give also report being happy people. And we've seen that not just in the United States but in literally countries all over the world, that basic relationship between giving and happiness seems to be there.

PERFAS: It's really interesting because it sort of seems counterintuitive to how we often spend our money. Like you said we spend a lot on stuff and it doesn't really impact our well-being or happiness in a positive way. So I wonder why it seems so counterintuitive that if you actually give money to other people or buy gifts or are more generous in that way that can actually increase your own well-being.

NORTON: I think it's so it's so fascinating. And one of the things that we do is experiments so that we can causally show that spending on somebody else makes you happier than spending on yourself. And so for example if I tell you, Here's $5 and I either tell you, Go buy a coffee for somebody else, or I say, Go buy yourself a coffee. Intuitively you might think that going and buying yourself a free coffee is awesome. And so you'd be really happy after that, whereas going and buying somebody else a coffee and watching them drink your coffee could be really negative. Right. It could not make you happy. And instead what we find is when you drink free coffee yourself, it's not bad to have a free coffee but it doesn't really do anything to your day. But buying a coffee and giving it to somebody else, it's different. It's giving, they might thank you. That's the thing that actually make you happier. We recreated our experiment recently and filmed some people being generous. We just gave people money and said, Go give it away. When you get money to give away you start getting really creative and thoughtful about it. And when they came up with these really interesting things then what happened was other people got involved. That was the first thing they thought of. And now you're creating kind of a social event that's really interesting for people. So one woman I think we gave her $20. She turned it into quarters and then she put all the quarters in like a huge circle in a park and then people just came in and ran and grabbed quarters and like little kids were there basically, and it was super fun for them and it was almost like an Easter egg hunt. She never would have thought to do that with $20 before then, until we told her. But once we told her, not only was she so happy to see the kids you know having a good time, but also the kids were happy. And then you created this event with just $20. You created this social event that otherwise you wouldn't have done.

PERFAS: Why do you think it's hard for us to give more or to want to give more?

NORTON: To me giving is a little bit like exercising where, we showed that giving makes you happy. That wasn't really that surprising to people. You know we didn't discover some hidden secret of spending your money. If you tell people giving money away makes you happy, most people say, oh yeah I can see that because I gave to this charity and it meant a lot to me, or I bought this gift for someone and you know they were really happy about it. So it's not a case where we don't understand the benefits. It's a case where we have a hard time putting it into practice and then that way it is like exercise. So I know that today I should not eat pizza and I should go for a run and every day I decide to eat pizza and not go for a run because today it feels better. So it's not quite a self-control problem it's just a, today I'm focused on myself and not the future and not other people. Tomorrow I'm focused on other people but I'm never at tomorrow. So we actually encourage people to try to be really programmatic about when and how much they give. To commit them, just like with exercise, to commit yourself to regular giving and see if you can get more emotional benefits.

PERFAS: So what are ways that you could commit or plan to be more generous? Like What are some tips that you give people?

NORTON: We've actually suggested and worked with some nonprofits... So you know whenever you give to a charity they say do you want to sign up for recurring donation? And almost everyone says absolutely not. I don't want to be committed to this organization forever. It's not so much that you have to commit to one organization. But typically what happens when you give is someone randomly e-mails you or asks you you know, I'm running a race will you sponsor me? Or this thing happened in the world will you give to it? But If the world doesn't prompt you, then you don't think to give and you carry on with your life. So you can literally set yourself up for recurring donations. You could the first of every month find a charity that's really meaningful to you and give money to that charity. It can take two minutes literally. One thing that I encourage people to keep in mind and I try to remind myself of this as well when I'm not giving enough is, you can get paralyzed on where to give and how much to give. And you know, should I give to a charity, should I buy a gift for a friend? All of those sorts of decisions are really important. You want to spend your money on things that matter to you. At the same time, sometimes that paralysis means you don't give it all. And we've shown that you know even when you give to a charity that's not your favorite charity in the world, you still tend to be happier and if you spend the money on yourself. So yes, think carefully about where you're giving but also just give. You'll probably get benefits from it without getting wrapped up in, am I making the exact perfect donation?

DANA LAINE: I'll go back to kind of the beginning, meeting your father.

PERFAS: My next guest is someone you maybe didn't expect to hear from: my mom, Dana Laine. When I was working on this episode, I realized that she would be someone who could give an amazing perspective of what it's like to not only give but to be on the receiving end.

LAINE: I grew up in the city and I grew up in a broken home and I grew up very very poor. We lived in low income housing we, most of the things that we did come by, by way of necessity, was provided to us either by the state or kind people you know, clothing in bags would show up from families with children who were older than us and things like that. And when I met your father, he was driving a semi for his father who owned three trucks and also farmed.

PERFAS: My mom shared that for her, seeing my dad's family operate on their Minnesota farm was like nothing she'd ever experienced. My grandpa was a hardworking farmer who also owned a semi truck business. My grandma worked in the house and my great aunt lived with them. My mom thought it was so amazing that it was a multigenerational family living together and working together on the farm. She saw it as a great way to raise the family. So she took over managing the farm when my parents got married, doing the books and helping my dad, and things were pretty good for a while. But as the dairy industry began to tank and farmers began to earn less and less for the food they produced things got financially challenging. On top of all the farm responsibilities, they were also raising me and my six brothers and sisters.

LAINE: Well I can share with you that it was extremely difficult and there were times, there were times over the span of our 18 years in the dairy business and farming that I cried. And I actually physically, physically had to hand him the checkbook and say, you have to do it this month, because I just can't. I made those payments as best I could. But then there were those really really tough times where I couldn't. So it was hard. There was a time where we had food stamps and that was very early on when we had just two or three of you children. And I told Richard, I said, you know I'll starve myself, but I won't starve my children. And so we were at a point where we just needed that little extra bump and it got us through a hard period. And I actually wrote the letter to the social services people and said thank you for your support, and I think we can take it from here and I took ourselves off. You guys were all in Head Start, which is just a wonderful program, and what they did every year in October was every child that belonged, that was in the Head Start program and their siblings filled out a little form with a couple of little things that they might have on a wish list, and those things were turned in through the Head Start teacher and some company or some family or some individual somewhere adopted that family and bought gifts for them. Either the whole family or an individual. So you never knew what it was. They came wrapped and then put in a big black plastic bag.

PERFAS: I remember the bag, it literally looked like Dad was Santa bringing up a giant black bag from the basement. And it was just full of presents. I mean because there seven of us, so it was literally full of presents and just being like, wow. And then realizing as an adult like, you and Dad didn't even know what those presents were gonna be. It was as much a gift for you guys to see the joy and excitement from us as we opened it. And, just what a, that's such a good memory. I remember I got these little beaded purple earrings that I was so thrilled about and thought were so cool. And yeah, a stranger picked those out for me. I didn't know that at the time but now it's just like, wow. Do you have any other stories or memories of people giving to us whether it was financially or with their time that were really like meaningful to you and Dad?

LAINE: Well one always pops to my mind and it was a really emotional time and we were, it was, we were coming up on winter pretty hard and I needed a couple, for the older kids, because I still had younger kids in Head Start. I never wanted to, I always felt this need to not, for lack a better thing, abuse the generosity or the resources that were offered us because of our position. And so at this time, okay so we needed a couple of winter coats and a couple of pair of heavier boots, which is kind of expensive for older kids and I didn't, I didn't fill out a form through the Head Start program because they also have a separate pot for coats and hats and mittens that people donate money to and businesses too. And anyhow, I got a phone call and it was right around dinner time and the gal that ran that program said to me, your Head Start teacher noticed that your little girl, which was you, was wearing a coat that looked like it was more of a boy's coat.

PERFAS: I hated pink, it was probably my choice.

LAINE: It was maybe your choice, but at that point we probably, you know, we were waiting for sales to come on you know, so we could kind of refurbish those that needed new coats that didn't take somebody else's to grow into, or this or that. And I said, well yes at that time, Sammy you were wearing one of Phillip and Evan's hand-me-downs. You know, it was the smaller one but it still fit. And she said well you know, we can we can do something about that. Do you think Samantha would like a new coat? And I said, yeah I think she'd love that. You know, so I gave sizes and then she said something about boots. And I said, well you know, yeah, feet grow. You know, she's, sure, you know we're having this really kind of awkward, because I didn't ask you know, I didn't put out for anything and I thought well this is very nice of you to call. And I said, well thank you very much for considering and remembering and calling. And I really appreciate it. And I hung up. And I was heading back to the table, like five steps in and the phone rings. So I go back, and at this time the phone is attached to the wall. So I go back to the phone and she says to me, no way. And I said excuse me? She said, "No way. You have seven children. She said, you are going to get seven coats and seven sets of boots and seven hats and seven pairs of mittens. I need those sizes." And I was just like overwhelmed, because she was right and I was just too maybe ashamed, or too... I didn't want to admit that we had that big of a need and so I gave her those things. And your dad is looking at you from the dinner table and I'm going, you know, that so that he can figure out what I'm doing, you know and I hang up the phone, and I actually put my back against that... the wall, and I kind of slid down and I just cried. And I gave thanks. And I apologized for my ego but it was such a blessing. You know God sees everything and he sees the need and he sees the whole need, and in that case he worked around my own sense of insecurity and ego. And he provided. And those things work miracles in your heart and in your spirit. And you just know, OK we're gonna get through this winter just fine. And I know now that I don't have to worry about that. If there's a need there's somebody out there that wants to fill it. People give to those organizations and to those programs because they know there's a need. And that's how they can help. And if you deny those things, I have learned, that if you deny somebody's ability to help you, you're denying them the blessing of being able to help. So that was a huge lesson for me to learn and when I help now, I should say when I help like through the board or through even our own choosing off the mitten trees or whatever, I write a letter, the card that goes into that Santa bag says, thank you for allowing us to do this for you. Because I know how important that is. People have needs and it comes and it goes and sometimes things are really good and some things are not so good. It's got nothing to do with who you are as a person. But when you see a need and you can help whether it be with time, money, resources, that's you know, something's speaking to you. You need to act on it. And I'm going to tell you, the reward is the growth that you feel. Your reward has got no money on it. I mean it is just pure gladness to be able to do it and to recognize the blessings you have for the ability to do that.

PERFAS: Sometimes, I think back to myself as a little girl. And to be honest I had no idea how poor we were or how much my parents struggled financially. In many ways I was protected from that because of the generosity of strangers, including from local churches and as my mom said from Head Start, a US government assistance program for children and low income families. That generosity continued throughout my life. I was given scholarships, opportunities. I was able to go to college and was accepted into a scholarship program for first generation college students. People gave of their time, their money, and energy and it completely changed the trajectory of my life. Whether you're liberal or conservative, it doesn't really matter. Generosity and compassion know no political barriers. And the impact that it has, whether it's buying someone a coffee, volunteering at a food pantry, or buying a little girl a new winter coat. It does make a difference and will probably make you happier in the process.

If you haven't already please do sign up for our newsletter. You can do so at csmonitor.com/perceptiongaps. And a thank you to everyone who made this possible. My producer Dave Scott, our studio engineers Morgan Anderson, Ian Blaquiere, Tori Silver, Jeff Turton, and Tim Malone. Original sound design by Noel Flatt and Morgan Anderson. And a special thanks to all my volunteer editors: Mark Sappenfield, Mark Trumbull, Greg Fitzgerald, Em Okrepkie, and Ben Frederick. Last but not least a huge thanks to my mom. Without her, I literally wouldn't be here. Thanks for being so willing to share your story.

I'm Samantha Laine Perfas. Thanks for listening to Perception Gaps.

COPYRIGHT: This podcast was produced by The Christian Science Monitor. Copyright 2018.

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