In search of the generosity habit

At last week’s Philanthropy Australia national conference, we released A Blueprint to Grow Structured Giving, with the goal of doubling Australia’s giving to $5 billion in the next decade. This week, we kickstart the discussion with a deeper look at three of the Blueprint’s elements


  • Opportunities to grow giving and factors to help address them
  • Giving behaviours are established early in life

What is the incentive for people to give? Is it a cause, an organization, a moment or an experience? Is it completely random? Or does it come from somewhere else, a habit in the home? Start young and become a little addicted to the buzz of generosity? When it comes to working out how to increase giving, having an understanding of where the impulse to donate comes from is one of the first steps, closely followed by findings ways to turn a one-off gift into a recurring practice.

There is a range of research insights in to giving that gives some clues about how best to tap into an individual’s generosity. For one, there is widespread acknowledgement that happy people are more altruistic or give more. In fact, the research points strongly to a virtuous generosity loop – that happier people give more and giving makes people happier.

We also understand that individual giving is motivated largely by generosity. However, what complicates the picture is that many donors still only give once to a charity. So, what do we do about this difference between intent and action, or what is called the “generosity gap’’? What builds the bridge between those two to make giving a more regular event for one-off donors?

And then there is the other perspective on the generosity habit - there is some evidence that attitudes towards giving are established early in life. Potentially, encouraging younger people to embrace the generosity impulse may help develop a habit that becomes more generous as their career progresses.

So amid all of this pondering, let’s pose a slightly different question, to Professor Bob Slonim, a behavioural economist at the University of Sydney who specializes in charitable behaviour, especially research in to blood donations.

If you were going to devise a plan to increase Australian giving based around behavioural change what would be the first basic step you would take?

“As an economist, I would be thinking where is the biggest potential impact that could be had that one could start from,’’ he says. “So one thing from behavioural change aspect that I think that’s important…it is actually pretty hard to sustain change by every month having to do a one-off campaign to get someone to donate and to donate again. So the thinking tends to be about how do you change – workplace giving is the example I’m thinking off – if they do that, they don’t have to sign up to revisit the decision every month.

“It’s the equivalent, for example, with electricity and conservation: if we’re asking people to be careful and turn their lights off every night or turn their appliances off when they’re not using them, that’s actually quite challenging. But if you can get people to buy a more efficient heater or dishwasher or refrigerator, then they’re done…it’s a bigger ask at the beginning but they don’t have to revisit their decision, to be constantly inundated by people trying to convince them to do it.’’

The idea of giving circles is not new – they have been around for some years, and part of their appeal lies in their capacity to operate collectively. “Giving groups differ from traditional philanthropy by providing a form of democratised and engaged giving. They bring everybody the opportunity to give in a meaningful and impactful way,’’ the report on giving circles carried out for Creative Partnerships Australia on behalf of the Department of Social Services observed in 2017.

The report also found that giving circles had a significant impact on the attitudes and behaviours of those who gave and also those charities who received the donations: 66 per cent of donors experienced a longer-term commitment to giving and 70 per cent increased or substantially increased the amount they gave. From the charities’ perspective, 81 per cent reported being able to leverage greater support as a result of being engaged with a giving group and 78 per cent reported a valuable continuing relationship with the giving groups.

The next step in exploring this idea is as Professor Bob Slonim explains, in the workplace collective giving circle. And what would such an innovation that look like? Well, last year, Good2Give undertook a six-month trial together with Westpac, looking at how giving circles could be used in a workplace context. The evaluation was led by Krystian Seibert, in his capacity as an Industry Fellow at the Centre for Social Impact at Swinburne University, and results were promising -  delivering “compelling data indicating greater participation, satisfaction and more impactful support for charitable organisations.’’

The approach is a simple way of bringing employees – often in larger corporate organisations - together to pool their resources for a cause-led or charity-led focus. Good2Give CEO Lisa Grinham first contemplated the idea seven years ago – she’s delighted that her patience has paid off.

“The big problem was getting on the corporate radar and to find champions for it within the organisations, and to develop the tool kits that would enable it happen,’’ she says.

But the evidence from the pilot was impressive – average annual donations of those who took part in the pilot increased by 43 per cent before and after the pilot.

What drives such a change? What’s the corporate dynamic that shifts that kind of thinking?

“Well, there are those people who are genuinely committed to a particular cause – they’ve perhaps been touched by an issue,’’ Lisa explains. But there are others too, who are drawn in to giving by individual leaders within their organisation who demonstrate the power and value of giving. And then there are those employees whose career ambition may be one of the reasons why they are giving: they see it as an ingredient in their career progression.

There are, according to Lisa, many demands on the nation’s big corporates from a range of charities and causes, but there is now some momentum to explore the workplace giving circle response. She says Good2Give has had some approaches from potential clients, and there are also discussions about a broader awareness program of just how powerful workplace giving can be. At its heart is the simple goal to help increase the pool of philanthropic funds.

“There is no doubt that Australians are generous in response to natural disasters in particular,’’ Lisa says. “It’s how do we translate that into a regular commitment.’’

And then there is the strategy of starting the philanthropic habit early.  One of the programs designed to do just that is the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation’s Youth in Philanthropy, which started with four schools in 2002 and has grown to 20 participating schools.

The program supports LMCF’s four impact areas and in the past five years has provided more than $5 million in grants.

Students are asked to learn about LMCF and the issues around Melbourne community philanthropy before selecting an impact area and three charitable organisations to support with a grant. It has resulted in funding for secure lockers for people who are experiencing homelessness to safely store their personal items; provided funding for a school breakfast program; supported a legal service for people experiencing mental health issues; crisis services and emergency relief for those in need; cultural programs for young people in disadvantaged areas and environment, urban agriculture and climate programs.

The student feedback has underlined how impactful the program has been for them – some students have chosen their university courses with a view towards starting a career in philanthropic sector. Others have spoken about the program’s life changing and inspiring experience.

LMCF CEO Dr Catherine Brown underlined the purpose of YiP when she imparted this message to the program’s participants: “I encourage all students who have participated in Youth in Philanthropy to think about how they can support philanthropy and the not-for-profit sector in their future careers and throughout their lifetime.’’

From such small steps, do potentially larger ones grow.

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