The Warm Glow of Charity

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on November 17th, 2017 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Studies show that giving money to help others gives people a feeling of satisfaction—or, figuratively, a “warm glow.”  Ergo, donating to charities is good for us.  But is it equally good for everyone?  Women Give 2017Charitable Giving and Life Satisfaction:  Does Gender Matter, a study out of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, looks at how this satisfaction may vary by household demographics.

Using data from the Philanthropy Panel Study, that surveys the same households over an extended period of time, this study looked at 10,735 heads of households or the partners of the heads of household in 2009, 2011, 2013, and 2015.  They used the self-reports from these individuals on their own degree of satisfaction, asking them to indicate, using a scale of one to five, where one was the lowest and five the highest, how satisfied they were with their lives.

Given all the previous research that has been done showing the correlation between giving and life satisfaction, it should come as no surprise to anything that this study found a significant difference (meaning the difference did not happen by chance, but results from the consistent presence of some influence) between the life satisfaction of donors and non-donors, where donors reported significantly great satisfaction with their lives than did non-donors.

Looking just at donors, the study found some interesting differences.  Those who give more than 2% of their income to charities were significantly more satisfied with their lives than those who gave 2% or less of their income.  Thus, how much you give does make a difference, though not in dollars and cents but in the extent of the “sacrifice” made.  This difference held across income.

The study divided donors into three income groups: household incomes less than $50,000, $50,000-$100,000, or more than $100,000, and then divided these three groups into two more—those who gave 2% or less of their household income and those who gave more than 2%.  And in each income category, those who gave more than 2% reported significantly greater satisfaction than those who gave 2% or less.  But, giving 2% or more if you are in the two lower income categories provides a bigger bump in life satisfaction over those who give 2% or less, than it does for those in the highest income category.

The positive impact that giving has on life satisfaction continues to hold regardless of household configuration:  households led by single men, single women and couples[1] who give all report significantly higher degrees of satisfaction with life than these same headed household that don’t give.  That said, couples that don’t give report higher degrees of life satisfaction than male and female singled headed households who give.  But the consistent pattern of a relationship between life satisfaction and giving stops when we look at who heads the household and the percentage of household income given to charity.  For single female-headed households and couple led households, giving more than 2% of the household income to charity does significantly increase life satisfaction; however, life satisfaction for single men heading households does not significantly change depending upon how much they give.  For single males heading households, the jump in life satisfaction comes between those who don’t give and those who give any amount.  Women and couples, however, both get a bump between giving and not giving, but then get another bump if they give more than 2% of their household income to charities.

The study went on to look at what happens to life satisfaction depending upon who makes the decisions on charitable giving.  For those households where the woman makes the decision and where the couple decides together, households that give more than 2% of their income to charity have significantly greater life satisfaction than those same households that give 2% or less, and than those households where the male makes the decision, or the members of the couple make independent decisions, regardless of how much the households give to charity.  And, when the women of households earning $100,000 or less make the decisions on charitable giving and decide to give more than 2%, there is a significantly higher increase in life satisfaction than in households making $100,000 or more.

The researchers conclude that men become more satisfied with life when they start to give to charities, while women become happier when they give more to charity.  They even go so far as to suggest targeting single men if you want to increase donations to your organization.  But the real takeaway from this study just might be affirmation that giving brings joy, regardless of a person’s sex, household configuration and household income, and those who make a bigger sacrifice in their giving amounts gain even more happiness.  So, pitch “charitable giving make you happier” and your fundraising just might increase.


[1] Couples are defined as heterosexual couples married or co-habitating.

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