Accounting for Generosity

We forget that there is no hope or joy except in human relationships.
— Antoine de Saint Exupery,Wind, Sand and Stars

moneyOne of my newest colleagues posed a provocative question last week. He actually has no shortage of insights, and I certainly appreciate living in an environment where questions are as highly valued as answers. Indeed, his inquiry is at the heart of what we do. What inspires alumni to give to their alma maters? More broadly, why do we give in general? At face value, this seems like a simple question, but the longer I work in the field of philanthropy, the more I understand its complexities. Actually, a myriad of responses come to mind—to address a critical need, to save a life, a response to the right appeal from the right person at the right time, a passion for a cause, a sense of obligation, guilt, helplessness, or quite simply— we are asked.

Traditional fundraising methods prescribe a deliberate approach built around the carefully managed steps of cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship. I remember hearing a development consultant stating that he could not imagine a better profession. He described an almost spiritual dimension—saying he felt truly privileged and honored to be in the presence of others when they are exhibiting generosity. And I think he had a point.

In fact, I addressed the sacred component of giving today. Though the Church historically and adroitly integrates giving opportunities into its core experience each week, the last quarter of the calendar year provides an opportunity to renew one’s annual tithing commitment. Making the direct correlation between generosity, one’s income, and one’s spiritual journey is quite powerful, indeed.

But research has shown there may also be a scientific component. I was fascinated to see the results of a study by Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University. The concept of a “neuroeconomist” is intriguing in its own right, but his work links the trait of generosity with oxytocin, a hormone released by the brain in response to social stimuli. The study showed that participants who were given oxytocin gave significantly more money to a stranger than participants who took a placebo. Whether or not there is a “fundraising drug,” (what a concept?) I think the epiphany here for all of us in the social media space is that meaningful, real engagement opportunities can create an environment that nurtures of generosity and an increase proclivity to give.

“The hormone causes a general feeling of attachment to other people, even strangers,” Zak says. That may help explain why people donate to victims of natural disasters or to others who are in need. “Oxytocin is a social glue that holds us all together and makes us care about other people,” says Zak, who has shown links between the hormone and trust in past research.

“If you have enough nurturing, if you’re in a safe environment, you might be more likely to release oxytocin the next time you encounter a positive social stimulus,” Zak says. Interestingly, he says that about 2% of people constantly have oxytocin being released by their brains, so they stop reacting to it. “Those people lack empathy,” Zak says. Although they can still learn appropriate behaviors, the reactions are not natural for them. Ha! I think I have met some of those people. Oxytocin means “swift birth” in Greek.

Whether you consider the hormonal reaction or not, it really all comes down to relationships—more about the intangible than the tangible. It is often first an emotional impulse of the heart, followed by a logical justification. We are all interconnected as part of a larger human web, and I’m not necessarily talking about the WWW variety here. We are human beings driven by:

Compassion. Regardless of cultural and familial experience, people everywhere are moved to respond when others are in need.

Pleasure. Brain scans confirm what we experience feeling of pleasure when we give. In a sense, it’s really “hard-wiring.”

Habit. If we watched our parents give, we likely internalized that impression. We understand—on even an unconscious level—that this is what good people do.

Belief. Whether we consider charity to be based on religious beliefs, philosophy, or universal values, we as humans recognize an essential imperative to take care of each other. These ideas are larger than self-interest and benefit.

Responsibility. When others are hungry, sick, frightened, without shelter and livelihood our society is put at risk. Our education institutions are driving solutions to many of society’s most pressing issues.

Legacy. When we give we know that we influence the future, sometimes only immediately and sometimes for a very long time. By creating a memorial endowment fund we keep our name and memory alive in the community long past the obituary.

The unknown. We may even have unknown reasons for giving—some even unknown to ourselves.

What do you think? And how is social media impacting generosity?

Elaine Gantz Wright writes about social media, fundraising, and other communications phenomena. Please post your comment below and join the conversation.

Hire me: elgantz@

5 thoughts on “Accounting for Generosity

  1. Bravo! Keep spreading the word. Of course there has to be something chemical about the way we feel when we are helping our fellow man.

  2. Elaine, your insights, as always, are suited to the day. In this social and economic climate, there is a need for people of compassion and true generosity who give, not just from their wallets and pockets, but of their lives and time, to those in need around them.

    Well said.

  3. Elaine,

    This is so interesting. I also wonder if the genetic or chemical trigger to give back is enhanced by generational (environmental) conditions. In other words, can particular circumstances and conditions around the world align such that the biological need to make an impact is activated for certain generations more than others.

    I run, which we describe as the leading Internet platform that connects people who are taking responsibility for changing the world – Change Agents – with those who can help them. By equipping Change Agents with a robust suite of Internet storytelling and mobilization tools – aggregated in a convenient, easy-to-use toolkit – we help them tell their stories, connect with supporters around the world and rally assistance for their initiatives.

    Because the Change Agents and their supporters (what we call Backers) on our site typically fall within the Gen Y demo, we often refer to them as “ego-altruists.” We use that term to refer to Gen Y’s particular need to give and get in a way that is completely intertwined as a way of life, rather than in older generations where philanthropy resides in a separate silo.

    This morning I checked out a site a blogger ( who has published an e-book called The Inconvenience of Change that does a really good job describing the Gen Y attitude about social change. There have been other really good studies lately, particularly the one that Irvine Foundation just released called Convergence: How Five Trends Will Reshape the Social Sector ( It is definitely worth a read.

    Deron Triff

    Deron Triff

    1. Deron — What a fascinating response and post. We have tried to connect in the past, and I would love to renew the effort. I appreciate the sources and references. The term “ego-altruist” is so interest and the concept you describe of integrated philanthropy is spot-on!! Thanks so much for your comment. Elaine

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