by Meredith McNabb
By my credentialing, it might appear as if I am a “master of divinity”—though I can assure you that my M.Div. degree might have done more to assure me of how very little I even can master about the ultimate nature of the divine than anything else. I was reminded of my research-scientist-spouse’s raised-eyebrow reaction to the name of that degree as I participated in the 2022 Science of Philanthropy research conference, held at the NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis September 21-22. Across the event, there was an underlying discussion about the degree to which one might rightly study philanthropy as a science versus the degree to which it is an art and a practice.
Science of Philanthropy
Development practitioners in attendance at the conference periodically noted that, for instance, they never, ever use multi-line statistical equations in the work they do on their side of philanthropy, despite the impressive regression analysis tools being presented by the scholars researching donor behavior, organizational purpose, and more. It was a lively and interesting conference pulling together top scholars and practitioners across the globe to dig into some of the practices and assumptions about philanthropic giving, and all signs pointed to participants from both the art and science sides of the field coming away with new insights.
The keynote address particularly captured some of the tension and notably provided many of the new insights – the University of British Columbia’s Dr. Azim Shariff presented “Religion and Prosociality: New Data on Old Questions.” Dr. Shariff described himself as being like an increasing number of mid-career adults: he is now among the religious “nones” after growing up in a religious family and spending his young adulthood among atheistic skeptics. Now as a professor, and the chair of UBC’s Centre for Applied Moral Psychology, he is neither part of, nor hostile to, the practice of religion—and he’s very interested in how religion affects people’s positive “prosocial” behavior like generosity and volunteering (and how it reduces their negative, “antisocial” behavior like crime, cheating, or violence.)
Religion and Prosociality
As someone thinking and talking about how religious people and religious organizations practice and encourage generosity of time and money, I found all kinds of new science-backed insights in Dr. Shariff’s presentation—and I found that nearly all of them resonated strongly with the practitioners I know who are elbow-deep in the art of considering giving. For one point, Dr. Shariff demonstrated that religious people tend to think they’re quite a bit more pro-social than they are, though there is certainly a positive correlation between religiosity and socially desirable practices like charitable giving. I think anyone who has made a fundraising appeal to a religious congregation might say mirrors their mixed on-the-ground experiences of the generosity of people of faith!
Dr. Shariff’s research dug in far deeper than observation, however, using the tools of social science to test out observational hypotheses about giving behavior. One aspect of his research looks at the degree to which religiosity encourages generosity toward one’s own community versus how it encourages (or not) generosity toward an “out group”. Utilizing the new discipline of “adversarial collaboration” in working with research partners who had an opposite initial hypothesis to his own team in order to reduce bias and strengthen findings, Dr. Shariff described a worldwide phenomenon in which faith appears to spark notably increased generosity toward one’s “in group”—but also sparked increased generosity toward out group members. While religious practitioners—or alumni of Lake Institute educational programs!—might cite Maimonides’ fifth and seventh rungs on the ladder of giving where the giver doesn’t know who the recipient is at all, or the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan to talk about the prosociality of out group generosity—it was fascinating to see the statistical breakdown of how religion does indeed prompt generosity, and how room remains for religious people to grow in their generosity beyond their own parochial affiliations.
It’s even more fascinating to see it demonstrated in a controlled laboratory setting matching US Evangelical Protestants with US Muslims, or Fijian Christians with Fijian Hindus, or Israeli Jews with Palestinian Muslims. In each of those pairings, one of the ways that the impact of religion was measured was to invite would-be givers to think about God [named in a manner as would be meaningful to their context], and later on they were asked to make a gift (or not) of their choice within the experiment—and thinking about the divine did indeed spark the religious people to give more generously to both in-group and out group members.
An Art and a Science
This is not necessarily to encourage directors of development in religious settings to be sure to ask their donors to think about God before they invite donations—it’s not a best-practices-in-fundraising kind of study! And for most of us serving in the field of practical generosity in congregations and nonprofits, “a controlled laboratory setting” is about the farthest from what we’ll ever encounter in our work—we are developing the art of building relationships and discovering shared meaning through generosity. But please know there are top-notch scholars successfully applying academic rigor to the questions of somewhat inscrutable meaning about the divine and the nature of generosity, and all of us appear to be discovering truths that resonate across the art and science of our field.
Questions for Reflection
- Thinking as a scientist, how do you see religion impacting generosity and volunteering in your community?
- What do you notice in your work about “the art of building relationships and discovering shared meaning through generosity”?
This article first appeared in Insights, a newsletter of the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving.