By Elsbeth Howe
Cindy’s mom Linda did everything she could for Cindy. Linda was a single mother, and she worked low-paying, physically demanding jobs throughout her life. After high school Cindy tried college a few times, but she wasn’t sure what she wanted to study, and the high debt she was incurring alarmed her. Cindy was working a minimum-wage job when Linda convinced her to try college one last time. While working full-time, Cindy attended Inver Hills Community College which offered returning adults substantial counseling and academic support services. With that support and much hard work, Cindy finally earned her college degree.
When graduation day came, Linda arrived at the ceremony two hours early so that she could make sure to find a seat in the front row. Linda said that Cindy’s graduation day was the happiest day of her life, and she kept mouthing “I’m so proud of you” with tears running down her face throughout the entire ceremony. Sadly, Linda passed away shortly after Cindy graduated from college. Linda had very few assets, but she did have a life insurance policy which named Cindy as the beneficiary. Cindy decided that rather than keeping the money for herself, she would generously use her mother’s life insurance proceeds to endow a permanent scholarship for older students with financial need attending Inver Hills Community College.
Was Cindy’s decision to be generous just because she is a nice person who had a nurturing mother who highly valued higher education? Or are all humans inclined to be generous by their nature?
Numerous studies about cooperation, generosity and empathy indicate that generosity is innate to humans. These scholarly works present compelling research using animals and humans to demonstrate that we are hard-wired to be generous. Scientists anticipate that future research will provide even more understanding about evolution and generosity.
First, what is generosity? It differs from cooperative behavior, which is mutually beneficial, and from prosocial behavior which provides benefits to the receiver. Instead, generosity behavior does not reference benefits to the recipient. The Science of Generosity Initiative defines generosity as, “giving good things to others freely and abundantly.”
When we start to look around, generosity is all around us. It is on display in the $471.44 billion that Americans contributed to charity in 2020, which is 5% more than was donated in 2019. It is also present in the volunteer rates of Americans. In 2016 the estimated worth of total U.S. volunteer hours was $193 billion.
It fascinating to examine about the biological origins of generosity. Research shows that animals exhibit both cooperation and generosity. Elizabeth Pennisi in her article ‘How Did Cooperative Behavior Evolve’ describes how animals work together to defend against dangerous enemies. Amazingly, even fish, bees, and army ants exhibit cooperative behavior. Multiple different studies prove that chimpanzees, marmoset monkeys, and bonobos display cooperative and generous behaviors. Research also demonstrates that animals help their fellow species’ members who are in peril and studies reveal that empathy developed to help animals and humans adapt and survive.
Some social scientists suggest that our generosity behaviors may have led to the ascendency of humans. One theory that seeks to understand the evolution of generosity is fitness interdependence. Broadly, this concept is that people who mutually relied on one another experienced increases in reproduction and survival. Fitness interdependence occurs among relatives, when couples have a baby, when people become connected due to difficult circumstances, and because of cultural institutions. It suggests that people with extensive fitness interdependence relationships produce more offspring. In addition, human biology including hormones, brain structure and genetics all play a role in generosity.
The extensive and complex biology of innate generosity was entirely new information for me. It greatly enhances my knowledge of philanthropy in general and provides me with a science-based explanation of philanthropy. In one of my first graduate philanthropy courses, I read about meliorism in Understanding Philanthropy by Robert L. Payton and Michael P. Moody. Meliorism resonated strongly with me; it means “the world can be made better through rightly directed human effort.” Meliorism is especially compelling because of the research that humans are naturally generous. In other words, generosity is not an aberration, it how we are meant to behave.
These insights are particularly valuable in my work as a fundraiser at Inver Hills Community College. My goal is to encourage and activate generosity and understanding the innate global nature of generosity is motivating. It makes me feel like I am in the right place and that I am part of a larger, positive movement of kindness.
Cindy’s passion and commitment to the college and the students consistently inspire me. She embodies the benefits and joy our donors receive from their giving and volunteering. Cindy now serves on the college’s alumni board, mentors students, and supports the college alumni scholarship as well as the scholarship she established in memory of her mother. Cindy is an extraordinary giving person. I am fortunate to know her.
Singer Natalie Merchant expresses my admiration for Cindy in her song Kind and Generous, when she says, “You’ve been so kind and generous… For your selflessness my admiration.”
Elsbeth serves as Development Director at Inver Hills Community College and is responsible for grant-writing, fundraising, event-planning, the alumni association, and scholarship administration.
Prior to this, Elsbeth served as Executive Director at Students United, an advocacy and scholarship nonprofit organization. The majority of her career has been in higher education, and her roles have included lobbyist, instructor and student senate advisor. She has served on several nonprofit boards and is a former City Council member. She graduated from Drake University in 1990 and earned her law degree in 1994 from the University of Iowa. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in philanthropic studies from Indiana University.
Elsbeth and her husband have three children, two in college and one in high school, and one small cat.