While many Americans give during the holiday season, the religious are most likely to feel charitable: according to a new book by David E. Campbell, American Grace, U.S. giving has always been heavily tied to religion. Those affiliated with a religion are most likely to contribute time and money to various philanthropic causes. But Campbell proposes that the actual motivator behind charitable giving is not God or a specific doctrine of charity. It’s actually the religious community, as he explained in a Thursday TIME article:
Rather than religious beliefs, we found that the “secret ingredient” for charitable giving among religious Americans is the social networks formed within religious congregations. The more friends someone has within a religious congregation, the more likely that person is to give time, money, or both, to charitable causes. In fact, even non-religious people who have friends within a religious congregation (typically, because their spouse is a believer) are highly charitable—more so than strong believers who have few social ties within a congregation.
Campbell goes on to propose secular, tight-knit organizations (such as atheistic churches) to help encourage charity amongst non-religious people.
But what is it about community, specifically, that encourages giving? Campbell doesn’t elaborate on this. Perhaps it is the love fostered through relationship. It could also be a sense of accountability derived from close community: if your best friend sponsors a child overseas, you may be prompted to do so as well. Community may also lend a feeling of immediacy to various issues: we may not be next-door to those fighting poverty, but we’re next-door to those fighting it.
This sense of immediacy may be one of the most important factors in charitable giving: The Atlantic shared thoughts Monday from bioethics professor Peter Singer’s “practical ethics” class at Princeton. He believes a feeling of remoteness can significantly affect giving:
It’s human nature to feel compelled to save those who are close to us—our immediate kin, our friends, the little boy we stumble upon whose desperate movements in the water tug at our hearts. It’s much harder to feel that sympathy for faceless children somewhere else (whether in another neighborhood in our town, or halfway across the world). Studies have shown that people tend to give more generously when they are shown a photo and told a story about one, identifiable, specific child.
How do we combat this geographical apathy? Interestingly, Singer points to research as an antidote: he instructs students to research four organizations, and determine which is the most meritorious. Through this exercise, the students “learn that their money will always go much further overseas: that a very small amount of money for an American can be life-saving to someone who is desperately poor. In other words, they learn about the tenets of effective altruism: how to evaluate organizations for transparency and benefits, and figure out which forms of aid are the most cost-effective. This is information that tends to inspire more giving.”
But Singer’s research-based tactic takes the human face away from charity—and according to Campbell’s research, this human face is an essential facet to long-term giving. Additionally, while it makes most logical sense to put your dollar where it will have the greatest practical benefit, Singer’s “effective altruism” distances the giver from the need. If community and immediacy are key ingredients to philanthropic giving, then this method—while useful in a utilitarian sense—may falter faster than community-fostered giving.