How We Give Now: Conversations Across the United States

People in the United States do not often talk about how they give, though their charitable giving ranks high when compared to other countries. Parents often model giving to their children by “showing,” not talking. Friends don’t discuss their giving, nor do family members. In the months between June and November 2019 we conducted 33 “How We Give Now” conversations with 338 participants, which generated 2,277 responses of how people give to make the world a better place. Across these conversations, participants mentioned how unusual it was to talk about their giving.

There’s a paradox here. People are generous with their time and money. They give to charities, politics, friends, families, and strangers. They help when asked. They buy products that are branded to support a certain cause or nonprofit. So, even while there is active participation, including in ways that signal generosity, it’s unusual for people to talk about their giving.

The “How We Give Now” project sought to improve our understanding of the different ways that people in the U.S. give their time, money, and other resources. The primary source of data are the findings from 33 facilitated group discussions, held in 15 states and the District of Columbia, that focused on surfacing the “how” of people’s giving and not the what, why, or to whom. Our hypothesis was that individuals give in more ways than even they understand. Our aspiration was to identify the range of individual ways of giving, as well as how people mix those mechanisms, to inform future research focused on understanding people’s motivations or aspirations for their actions.

Anticipating the novelty of these conversations, we strove for anonymity in participation as a means of building trust among participants and among participants and the research team. We worked through local host organizations and individuals, and the research team did not collect participants’ names or contact information. Participants could opt in to share demographic data (age, gender identity, racial identity). These methodological decisions limit the conclusions that can be drawn from this data. We made the decision to trade detailed demographic data for trusted participation. The conclusions do not allow for consideration of giving behaviors by different demographic groups, for example.

The data confirm our original hypothesis—people in the United States give time, money, material goods, comfort, and knowledge in many ways. Their behaviors reach far beyond the kinds of activities t that are officially counted or incentivized in the US, like tax-exempt donations to charitable organizations, contributions to political candidates or groups, or volunteering time to faith or community organizations. In a country where giving is normatively associated with donating to charity, fewer than 20% of participant responses about how they take action to make the world a better place mentioned giving money. Participants seldom mentioned tax codes in reference to their giving, but instead discussed giving locally, civic engagement, and myriad informal giving acts, including sharing kindness and connecting others—and they spoke of these acts often and with excitement.

This research was conducted by Lucy Bernholz, PhD; Matilda Nickell, Brigitte Pawliw-Fry, Jeffrey Rodriguez, and Heather Noelle Robinson. This report was written by Lucy Bernholz and Brigitte Pawliw-Fry. Laura Seaman, Sebastian Martinez Hickey, and Heather Noelle Robinson provided logistical and research support.