Response to Alan Fowler’s Perspectives from African Gifting on Multi-Disciplinarity

Una Osili, Research director of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy (

Generosity persists across diverse global cultures, religions and geographies.  Very little, however, is known about how its practice varies in these different contexts.  Prof. Alan Fowler, Chair of African Philanthropy at Witwatersrand University, highlights the inherent challenges in studying generosity across nations. In particular, cultural, religious, and societal forces shape norms and practices that in turn influence generosity.  Moreover, Fowler urges scholars to go beyond the Western traditions of philanthropy to deepen our knowledge of how generosity linkages are formed within familial and community networks.  For example, in South Africa, Ubuntu, meaning “the quality of being human,” differs greatly from western notions of charity. Expressions of generosity go well beyond giving to formal organizations in many non-western cultures.

By taking into account the complexities of studying generosity, the Center on Global Generosity can expand knowledge by identifying and disseminating new comparative data on generosity. One important priority for the project is to investigate contextual explanations for cross-national differences in philanthropy, including community institutions, government and economic policies, legal and institutional factors, as well as religious and cultural influences, that shape patterns of generosity in different parts of the world.  It is also important that this new research initiative provide opportunities to capture, in a comparative way, the extent of cross-border generosity in Western and non-Western contexts.

During the past two decades, the role of generosity in addressing human challenges and strengthening civil society has received rising visibility.  In sub Saharan Africa, as well as other environments where national governments increasingly face resource constraints, it is vital to understand the extent to which individuals are directly engaged in addressing urgent societal needs.  However, existing data sets rarely allow for comparisons of generosity in different countries and cultures.  Giving to formal organizations may be a relatively small share of households’ transfer behavior in South Africa and other parts of the developing world.  In fact, more households surveys have the potential to include modules on family, community and organizational resource flows, as these remain vital to understanding well-being and generosity.

By expanding research on this topic, scholars can also provide important insights for policymakers who seek to understand how to strengthen and promote local and national practices around generosity.  There is also a great deal of interest in learning how individuals are finding ways to solve community-level challenges or address complex problems.  In a world where social and economic inequities shape lives, individuals, corporations, foundations, researchers, and policymakers seek accurate and timely information about the scale and scope of generosity in different parts of the world, and also seek to shed light onto cross-national differences in what causes and issues  matter to individuals.   Understanding the complex forces that shape generosity is even more urgent, as cross-national dialogue is needed to inform policy debates on the equitable fiscal and legal treatment of generosity that flow across national borders.

At the country and regional levels, there are several explanations for cross-national differences in philanthropic behavior, including welfare state policies, fiscal policies, legal requirements, as well as religious and cultural factors.

Governments can affect private contributions to public goods by providing subsidies to charitable organizations.  Based on standard economic models of public good provision, government support has the potential to “crowd out” private contributions (Andreoni 1988; Kingma 1989, among others). When governments provide public goods, the need for individual charitable donations may be lower.  However, empirical studies have rarely provided support for  complete “crowd out” (Brooks 1999; Reece 1979; Wilhelm and Ribar, 2002).

Governmental funding for charitable organizations may have two potential effects. On the one hand, in line with the crowding-out hypothesis, direct government funding may reduce the need for charitable organizations to raise funds among the general public.  Based on altruistic motives, donors may consider government funding an alternative source of funding that reduces the need for private contributions. On the other hand, government support may provide means to raise funds and signal a trustworthy reputation, leading to increased private donations also known as  “crowding-in” (Salamon et al. 2000).

Governments can also use fiscal policies to influence generosity. Providing individuals with stronger financial incentives for charitable donations through tax policy will tend to increase resource flows in a country, and can help explain differences in private giving across countries (Dehne et al. forthcoming; Koele 2007).

Finally, nations differ widely in the extent and level of regulation of generosity and nonprofit organizations (O’Halloran et al. 2008; Rutzen et al. 2004).  Religious and cultural differences can help explain cross-national differences in the practice of generosity (Bekkers and Wiepking, 2007).  In addition, cross-national differences in government policy, and contextual and cultural settings play an important role in understanding generosity in each nation and across nations.  Ultimately, this research initiative contribute to new ways to the study of generosity and in doing so, improve its practice around the world.