Shaping your sense of giving

Where does our sense of giving come from? How is the act of giving shaped and sized?

One of my family’s holiday traditions is an open house we put on in the second or third week of December. It’s an opportunity to bring our family’s “community” together; all walks of life, people who normally might not run into each other. This followed us from Boston to Seattle, and when we moved to the small town in the Midwest we live in, it found a home here too.

With a backdrop of a worldwide financial crisis and looming hardship in the New Year we asked ourselves “what would be appropriate this year?”. So, my wife rolled up the expenses for last year’s holiday activities and we called a family meeting to talk this through. As we walked through the numbers we saw our party accounted for 20% of the holiday budget last year.

It was gratifying to see our children balance what they knew was happening in the economy with their own fondness for the party. Our fourteen year old son was the first to verbalize what they all seemed to be thinking: “Let’s not have the party and donate the money to the food pantry”. There was a lot of back and forth, but that’s essentially where everyone ended up.

So, instead of sending out an invitation, my wife created an “Un-Invite” in the same invitation format as in years past. It told people we wouldn’t be holding our holiday party this year due to the hardship many are or would be facing and we’d be donating to the food pantry instead. We put instructions on the back letting folks know that they could drop off their own donations with us and we’d deliver these to the food pantry as well.

We got interesting responses. The people at the upper end of the income brackets seemed to hear “You can’t afford to put the party on this year” – and told us so either outright or indirectly. The people on the lower end of the income bracket seemed to hear “You’re focusing on the needs of others” and mailed us checks or dropped off food. Those who gave generally have little to begin with – but found a way to mail $10 or $20.

This range of responses shocked us.

I did some digging and it looks like this is more the norm than not. A paper on charitable giving in America written for Google’s philanthropic foundation makes some interesting observations:

  • “Average” income folks (<$100K) are generally the greatest dollar givers or the most active givers as a percentage of the population, representing 36% of total giving.
  • “Above Average” income folks ($100K – $200K) are the least giving and least active givers than any other income group, representing 8% of total giving.
  • “Average” income folks contribute 49% of the giving to meet basic needs of the poor, while “Above Average” folks contribute 13% of the total. “Wealthy” folks ($200K – $1 million) contributed 28% of the total given.

How does one’s giving “call to action” get shaped and sized? Do some people see a need and respond with an action shaped by the nature of the need? Or do some people see a need and shape their response by their own circumstances (budget, social status,…)?

Why is it that folks closest to feeling the needs of the poor found it easiest to hear the rationale for canceling our party? Is it as simple as realizing they could be there too if circumstances changed? Are folks on the next rung up on the ladder more cognizant of the distance they’ve created? Is that why the focus shifted to “affording a party or not” – which is really a social status issue that has little to do with the needs of the poor.

If it was gratifying to see how our children realized we should cancel our party this year. It’s been equally gratifying to see them ask these questions with us – none of us know the answer.

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One Response to “Shaping your sense of giving”

  1. Kasey Byrne Says:

    ” The people at the upper end of the income brackets seemed to hear “You can’t afford to put the party on this year” – and told us so either outright or indirectly.”

    I find this fascinating. To hear this message, one would have to believe you were lying about your intended donation to the food pantry. If you can’t afford the party, how would you afford a donation in its stead? It implies that you claimed the donation without actually making it, which is breathtaking to me.

    Like

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