How does fear play a role in how we care for each other? How do our top universities raise hundreds of millions of dollars a year? And what happens to giving when a priest announces amounts donated from the pulpit, sometimes revealing the names of parishioners and sometimes not?
If you are seriously curious about philanthropy, you should have joined us for the sixth Science of Philanthropy Initiative (SPI) Conference in Chicago last month. The scholars, scientists, and practitioners assembled revealed dimensions of philanthropy that affect us all.
It was also a welcome reprieve from discussions of Jeffrey Epstein’s “gifts” to MIT and Harvard, and the simplistic view of philanthropy as something wealthy people do to advance their status in society. However, there were some insights into psychopathic tendencies that may be relevant to the Epstein phenomenon.
As the expression of generosity, philanthropy is much more pervasive than we assume. At SPI, Georgetown psychologist and neuroscientist Abigail Marsh showed a map of how donors who give a kidney to an unknown stranger are distributed across the United States. It turns out that the places that have more of these extreme altruists also have higher reported levels of well-being. And these extreme altruists also tend to dislike being praised for their gifts, at the same time that they tend to have enlarged amygdalas as shown by brain scans.
By contrast, individuals with psychopathic tendencies, who will not hesitate to push you down the stairs to take your phone, tend to have smaller amygdalas. And what the amygdala apparently enables us to do is to experience fear and to detect it in others. The better we are at appreciating fear in others, the more we seem to be primed to engage in helping others.
Professor Marsh’s book Fear Factor depicts this responsiveness to fear as the emotion that hard wires us for doing good, with most of us falling in the middle range between extreme altruists and those with psychopathic tendencies. So this is one possible foundation for the biological and psychological phenomena that psychologists call prosocial behavior, an element of philanthropy.
A very different fabric of generosity is woven by our institutions of higher education. John Glier, CEO of Grenzebach Glier and Associates, who served as the practitioner keynote at SPI, has consulted with the majority of billion dollar campaigns at U.S. universities. His survey of major university fundraising operations opens a window into the growing professionalization of data-driven investment of tens of millions of dollars to raise hundreds of millions.
According to the data Glier shared at the conference, the few universities who have raised about $1 billion or more a year end up spending about $100 million a year on fundraising. After all, spending $10 to raise $100 is a good deal.
The calculus of fundraising from high net worth individuals has become part of the fabric of running a university in the U.S. and many other countries. Analytics shared by Glier tell our university leaders the mean number of years before an alumnus makes a $1 million commitment, the likelihood that a donor will make an even larger gift after their first $1 million donation, and the average age of a typical million dollar donor at their university and other similar institutions.
The million dollar donations are important as they make up more than half of the fundraising totals of the large private and public universities that shared their data with Glier. Presidents and the university leadership focus their attention on the very top of the pyramid where the resources they need to accomplish their vision are concentrated.
Michael Bloomberg’s historic gift of $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins in 2018, and Robert Smith’s gift to pay off the debts of the entire graduating Morehouse College class (including their parents) is emblematic of the growing dependence on a small number of very wealthy alumni—one, in the cases of Hopkins and Morehouse.
It is not surprising, then, that there are pressures to cater to the very wealthy. It takes leaders with strong moral visions to navigate institutions through the ethical challenges that arise when the resources of a few have such a significant impact on the fortunes of entire institutions.
Sometimes the impact of one individual rests not on their wealth but on their status as a faith leader and a representative of a faith community. James Andreoni, a leading economist of philanthropy who is known for the notion of warm-glow giving (the emotional reward to the donor) spoke about a natural experiment that demonstrated the pull of peer giving and public announcements of donations from the pulpit.
A church in Croatia gathered six years of meticulous data about the giving of its parishioners. In one period, the priest would announce amounts of donations, then in another period he would include the names of donors, and then in the final period he would announce each family’s cumulative giving over several years. This was a natural experiment on the power of peer pressure and the effect of publicizing giving.
Andreoni and his co-authors found that “individuals are more inclined to donate when (the) donation is publicized more loudly, when it is associated with positive information about the individual's donation history, and (when it is announced) simultaneously with other individuals in the same reference group.”
So a scientific perspective, one rooted in curiosity, reveals a tapestry of philanthropy with a variety or patterns. There is human kindness at least in part rooted in how we connect to others through the primal experience of fear. It is innate but it is unevenly distributed across people and places. Its extremes are instructive in the same way that the study of anomalies helps us better understand the more normal condition of human behavior.
With our universities, the pattern is one of growing investment in fundraising professionalism that is bringing in more funds based on a focus on the wealthiest donors. Much of this data is still seen as closely guarded “business intelligence,” but its presentation at the conference may be the beginning of its exposure to the scrutiny of scholarship and science.
Finally, the analysis of the meticulous data gathered by the Croatian priest reveals how carefully we adjust our giving to others’ giving and to the way our community chooses to recognize our contributions.
If you want to participate in our next conversation on how science and scholarship can, in tandem with thoughtful practitioners, illuminate the natural foundations of philanthropy, its deployment in achieving business outcomes, and its enmeshment in our communal lives, join us September 16-17, 2020 in Indianapolis for the seventh SPI Conference.
Eugene R. Tempel Dean