I think it’s always interesting to know what patterns others have found that are predictive of giving. But it’s a mistake to latch onto them as if they were universal truths.
A story in the January 2010 issue of CASE Currents magazine (the publication of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education) alerted me to a new study which the story says “shows that alumni who gave to their alma mater every year in the first five years after graduation gave, on average, eight times more to the institution by their 20th year out than even those alumni who donated the same amount in the first few years but did not make a steady habit of it.”
The Habit of Giving (PDF) is the work of Jonathan Meer, an assistant professor of economics at Texas A&M University, and Harvey S. Rosen, a professor of economics and business policy at New Jersey’s Princeton University.
Meer’s research focuses on habit formation. In this case, he’s trying to parse out the influence of habit from other influences, such as solicitation by one’s former roommates or performance of the school’s athletic teams. Many fundraisers believe in the effect of habit – that small gifts early on will lead to big gifts later in life – but Meer sets out to determine the truth.
This is very interesting, of course. But too often these findings are stated in language that assumes that patterns, once found, must apply everywhere. Meer’s findings are based on data from a single private research university. He writes, “It seems evident that the pursuit of frequent gifts from young alumni, even if the university suffers a loss in the process, is justified.”
Really? Justified for the single institution in his study, yes. But for my institution? Or yours?
I don’t doubt there are patterns relating to charitable giving that are woven through the entire fabric of humanity. But when it comes down to return on investment for a single enterprise, wouldn’t it make sense to test the assumption first?
(In any case, I encourage you to read Meer’s paper; I’ve given it rather short shrift here.)
A thought about ‘habit‘ … Meer observes that many of us in fundraising put faith in instilling the good habit of giving. I’m not one of them. I don’t actually believe in ‘good’ habits. Habitual behaviour is mindless, and habits drift in and out of our lives mindlessly. Paradoxically perhaps, habit is inconstant and unreliable.
Isn’t charitable giving something that people should intend to do? And shouldn’t we earn it? Nothing should let us off the hook from making our case to donors.
The more that giving is based on intent, the more unpredictable it will be. Our models will never ‘explain’ all or even the majority of the variability of giving. I rather like living in a world where predictable, knee-jerk herd behaviour is trumped by unpredictable (but meaningful) personal choice. Even if it makes my job harder!