Exploring cultures of philanthropy

27 May

By Dr. Teri Behrens, director of special projects and editor in chief of The Foundation Review at the Johnson Center for Philanthropy

140516_New 1st Grade Library_28What influences the ways in which major donors in a community make their charitable contributions? Is there such a thing as a “philanthropic culture” that can be measured, or at least described?

My colleagues Michael Moody (Frey Foundation Chair for Family Foundations and Philanthropy), Michelle Miller-Adams (associate professor, Political Science, GVSU), Grace Denny (graduate student, GVSU) and I have begun exploring these questions, beginning with looking at philanthropic patterns in the West Michigan cities of Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. The communities are similar in many ways: In both places, wealthy donors with local roots have invested heavily to improve the quality of life, revitalize the urban core, and develop a strong arts and cultural infrastructure. However, the two communities differ in significant ways, such as how local donors use different kinds of philanthropic institutions and the issue areas to which they contribute.

We’ve been using a variety of data sources — interviews, Foundation Center data, 990s, the Million Dollar Donors database at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, and a social capital survey done in both communities in 2000.

Some of the things we’ve been looking at are:

  • What mechanisms do donors use most frequently — individual giving, family foundations, community foundations, United Way?
  • Does the level of social capital in a community influence giving patterns?
  • Do hometown donors tend to give locally or nationally or internationally?
  • What community factors are related to different “styles” of giving — anonymous giving vs. naming building, for example?
  • How is involvement in religious organizations related to giving to secular organizations?
  • How are giving patterns related to the business cultures and sources of wealth?
  • What factors are related to what types of causes or organizations are supported?

As a sneak peak, we’ve found that giving through foundations is more common in both communities than is true nationally. However, in one community, family foundations are a major vehicle; in the smaller community, the community foundation is a primary vehicle.

Our preliminary results will be available in late summer. In the meantime, we’d love to hear what other factors we should include.

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One Response to “Exploring cultures of philanthropy”

  1. Joyce White May 28, 2014 at 1:23 pm #

    Teri: On a recent flight to Grand Rapids my seat mate and Grand Rapids native asked where I was from and I, in turn, asked him what was most remarkable about Grand Rapids. His answer was one I would never have expected and am not sure I will ever hear again. He identified the strong philanthropic community and a corporate culture of investing in community as being what makes Grand Rapids special. Given what I saw when I was there, I’d say he is right. It will be interesting to see where your research leads.

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