Participation in charity is declining across most generations. An online survey of 1,339 U.S. donors conducted by Blackbaud found that each generation surveyed, with the exception of Baby Boomers, has experienced a decline in the share of members who report giving to charity. The study’s findings agree with a growing body of research suggesting that, even as total dollars donated is growing, the population of givers is contracting.
The shrinking percentage of the population involved in charitable giving could have huge implications, especially with older generations expected to transfer an estimated $59 trillion in wealth to younger generations in the coming years. How will Gen-Xers and Millennials raise their children to inherit generosity and not just wealth?
In a related trend, researchers are also sounding the alarm about an apparent decline in empathy--this could exacerbate the consequences of reduced participation in charitable giving. A meta-analysis of studies of American college students found that, compared to college students in the late 1970s and early 1980s, today’s students score lower on measures of the critical components of empathy. It found that the decrease has primarily happened since 2000 and shows up in tests designed to assess feelings of sympathy for the misfortunes of others and tendencies to imagine other people’s points of view. This is noteworthy because higher levels of empathy are linked to prosocial behaviors such as volunteering and donating to charity.
To counter these trends, it is important that parents are intentional about building empathy and inspiring generosity in their children. However, parents who believe demonstrating their own generosity is enough to pass on these traits to their children may be mistaken.
A study of over 900 children ages 8 and older found that role-modeling charitable giving is not nearly as effective in inspiring generosity as discussing philanthropic giving (see Research box). In fact, children who have conversations with their parents about donating to charity are 20% more likely to give to charity themselves. This increased likelihood of donating is true for children in families of all income levels and across gender, race, and age groups.
If talking to children about charity significantly affects children’s giving behavior, how might we help more parents have those types of conversations with their children?
We propose creating a set of tools and resources that provide families guidance on facilitating conversations about giving. The goal should be to design an activity that will build empathy, promote generosity, and encourage the sharing of charitable values between parents and children.
It is important these discussions stretch beyond traditional charitable giving and formal volunteering to capture informal volunteering and other helping behaviors as well. Time diary studies in the US, UK, and France show that informal volunteering is actually the most common form of helping behavior. Results showed that more people across the three countries reported having helped a stranger in the last month (an average of 45%) than those who had done any formal volunteering (20%).
Having meaningful conversations about these topics can be daunting for parents. Any product about giving conversations should include elements intended to make the conversation engaging and interesting for children, whether through its visual design language or incorporating a gamification mechanism. We also recommend that conversation topics include generosity, charitable giving, and volunteering to reflect a holistic understanding of prosocial behaviors. It is also important to include advice for parents on how to facilitate the conversation, with a preference for exchanges that are not mediated exclusively by technology.
We believe it is better for this to be a two-way conversation, meaning that children and parents should both play a role in asking and answering questions. If possible, a solution should include action steps the family can take together to turn the discussions into practice, such as volunteering together or picking a charity to donate to on a holiday or family member’s birthday.