Americans are more willing to be generous with their bodies than their money

Editor’s Note: In the wake of the ubiquitous Ice Bucket Challenge, Americans looked like a fairly generous lot. But based on data collected in 2010 for the University of Notre Dame’s Science of Generosity Initiative, six out of seven Americans don’t voluntarily donate even 2 percent of their income.

Making Sen$e took a closer look at Americans’ patterns of financial giving with Notre Dame’s Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson, whose recently published book, “The Paradox of Generosity,” shines a light on just how ungenerous Americans seem to be — even though practicing generosity is physically and emotionally good for us.

Paradox of Generosity

Of course, donating money isn’t the only form of generosity. But as Smith and Davidson wrote on Making Sen$e last week, Americans aren’t very generous with their time or talent either. Three-quarters of Americans don’t spend any time volunteering, and even more surprising are the low percentages who practice relational and neighborly generosity, spending time with or doing non-monetary favors for family and neighbors.

In the third adaptation of the third chapter of their book, Davidson and Smith turn their attention to yet two more forms of generosity — giving away parts of ourselves, like our blood and organs, and giving after death in the form of bequests and wills.

Smith and Davidson end with the depressing reality about Americans’ willingness to be generous. If Americans, hypothetically speaking, were willing to donate, but just didn’t because of time or resource constraints, for example, that might be more forgivable. On average, Americans’ willingness to be generous in theory exceeds their giving in practice. Nowhere is that more apparent than in blood donations: about 53 percent of Americans say they’re willing, while only about 12 percent actually donate. But Americans are still pretty reluctant to be generous with their money, with about two-thirds saying they’re not ready, even in theory, to give money to address issues that concern them.

For a deeper look at Americans’ giving practices, here again are Smith and Davidson.

— Simone Pathe, Making Sen$e Editor

Generosity means giving your money, your time, your energy and your attention formally to organizations and causes and informally to friends, neighbors and relatives. But sometimes generosity means giving a part of you – literally, in the case of blood and organ donations. How does this kind of giving compare to donating money or time? Based on what respondents to the Science of Generosity Survey report about their own attitudes, more Americans say they’re ready to give blood than to give money or volunteer their time.

So just how many of us submit to having a needle in our arms? About 12 percent gave blood in the year before the study (2009). Federal statistics put the percent of Americans who give blood in any given year at less than 10 percent. These people provide the American health care system with an absolutely indispensable source of life for millions of patients who need blood transfusions. Giving blood is all the more impressive because it is essentially anonymous to those who benefit, it takes time and can hurt, and it is often not rewarded with monetary compensation.

So while it’s commendable that these Americans donate blood, looked at the opposite way, these findings mean that almost 90 percent of Americans do not give blood – and not because there is no need for more of it.

Graph courtesy of the authors.

Graph courtesy of the authors.

Oftentimes, in fact, the health care system suffers blood shortages. Because of this need, the majority who don’t give, but are medically eligible, could be a lot more generous with their hemoglobin.

Donating organs, however, is a much different story. Yes, more of us could sign up to do it, but a much higher percentage of Americans –- 43 percent, in fact – claim to be organ donors, according to the Science of Generosity Survey taken in 2010. This comports roughly with the 38 percent of licensed drivers in the U.S. who are said to be registered organ donors in that same year, though we are happy to report an uptick in registered donors to 44 percent in 2013.

And yet, is that really such an impressive display of American generosity? Becoming an organ donor is not itself difficult. Oftentimes the opportunity is presented to people when they first obtain or renew their driver’s license. All they need to do is check a box in the paperwork and they have become donors. Being an organ donor in the vast majority of cases also does not affect the donor anytime during his or her lifetime.

We know that donated organs save the lives of many sick people. We also know that there is a major scarcity of most organs that people might donate. Many sick Americans die while waiting for a donated organ. In light of all of that, although the organ-donation glass can be viewed as not quite half full (at 43 percent), it can also be viewed as half empty, with somewhat more than half of Americans not being registered as organ donors. Again, there is certainly room for improvement.

Generosity After Death

Organ donations, as we pointed out, most often occur after death. So does another, more financial form of generosity – bequests and wills. But as we’ll see – one is a lot more common (and albeit easier) than the other.

Generosity 8 - Organ donors

Graph courtesy of the authors.

Not many Americans designate a favorite charity as a beneficiary in their wills. Only 4.6 percent have a nonprofit organization not related to their family as a beneficiary in their will. Of course, most Americans do not have wills in the first place. So this precludes their donating to worthy causes or organizations upon their deaths. But, at least for Americans of any positive net worth, that itself reflects a lack of proactive forethought for generosity as a legacy to leave of one’s completed life. Nineteen out of 20 adult Americans do not behave generously when it comes to this form of giving.

Generosity - 9 non-profits in will

Graph courtesy of the authors.

Again, for some, especially the poorest of Americans, estate giving may simply be an irrelevant idea. Their problem has more to do with debt than with where to give their resources. But estate giving, however modest, could become a more important expression of generosity for many Americans who can afford it.

Willingness and Reluctance To Be Generous

Giving or volunteering is one thing; saying that you’d be willing to give or volunteer says something else. In addition to the behavioral measures of generosity we’ve discussed, the Science of Generosity Survey also asked respondents how willing they would be to engage in four different kinds of generosity.

Examining their answers provides yet another view of American generosity. First, the survey asked respondents how willing they would be “to give money for an issue of concern to them.” Answers ranged on a five-point scale, from extremely willing to very willing, somewhat willing, not very willing, and not willing at all. We see that 67 percent of Americans are reluctant to give money to address issues that concern them. Thirty-three percent, by contrast, are very or extremely willing to give money. In short, about two-thirds of Americans do not reflect high degrees of readiness to be generous with their money, even when it comes to issues that personally concern them.

So maybe money’s the issue? The same kind of question was asked about respondents’ willingness to volunteer for an issue of concern to them. But again, nearly two-thirds of American adults admit to a reluctance to being generous in volunteering their time and talents for a matter that concerned them. Remember that this question did not ask about actually committing to volunteering, merely an attitudinal readiness to volunteer in theory. Even so, most Americans do not seem enthusiastic.

Generosity -- percent willing to volunteer

Graph courtesy of the authors.

As we saw with the behavioral responses toward giving and volunteering, when we talk about giving blood, Americans look a little more generous. Fifty-three percent of Americans said they would be very or extremely willing to give blood if they were able to do so. Slightly less than one-half were not especially willing to give blood. Since we know that only 11.5 percent of the same survey sample actually did give blood in the previous year, something must explain the gap between the theoretical willingness and the action. In any case, more Americans at least profess a readiness to give blood than to give money or to volunteer.

Finally, only one-quarter of Americans said that they would be very or extremely willing to include a charitable donation in their will to engage in estate giving. Three-quarters were reluctant to say they might do that. Again, this is complicated by the fact that many Americans do not ever think about writing wills for passing on their possessions. And some people may simply not want to think about their own deaths. Even so, the large proportion of American adults who professed not to be very willing, even in theory, to dedicate some of their resources upon passing away to a worthy cause in the form of a charitable donation does not reflect a particularly robust level of generosity on this measure.


If Americans want to become happier, healthier people who live with greater purpose, suffer less depression, and enjoy more personal growth, one way they might accomplish that is to learn to be more generous.

The scientific evidence shows that more generous people are doing significantly better in their lives in many important ways. And we have a solid grasp of the kinds of causal mechanisms that link greater generosity and higher well-being in life — including, for example, how generosity can (1) trigger chemical systems in the brain and body that increase pleasure and reduce stress, (2) increase personal sense of agency while reducing maladaptive self-absorption and a scarcity-mindset, and (3) expand the number and density of social network ties.

Americans have not “topped out” their capacity to live in the kind of generous ways that we expect could increase their happiness, health, purpose, mental health, and growth. Only a minority of Americans are living clearly generous lives, however you measure it. The majority of Americans thus enjoy the opportunity to dramatically increase their generous practices. Doing so would not only be good for the people to whom they are generous — it would also be good for themselves.