The Generosity of Those Who Have Less

Posted by | April 25, 2011 | Blog, Community | 1 Comment |

Pop quiz: Who gives away more of a percentage of their income – the wealthy or the working class?

If you said the working class, you win! Are you surprised? Studies have shown that people with less give a higher allocation of their household income to charity than those with more. I just read an article that explores why this may be true.

Frank Flynn, professor of organizational behavior, at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, writes on the Center for Social Innovation blog about four related studies on the correlations between feelings of altruism, compassion, and concern for others’ welfare and socioeconomic status and class. The column explores what motivates people to make charitable donations, volunteer their time, give gifts – part of what is called “prosocial behavior” by psychologists.

In each study, participants from more affluent backgrounds were less likely to give to others – sometimes points or “play money,” or a share of work that needed to be done – than participants who had less themselves or were asked to imagine in the study that they had less than someone else.

Here’s what I found most interesting:

“When experimentally induced to feel compassion by watching a clip about child poverty, upper-class participants behaves just as prosocially toward their partners as did lower-class participants. These findings are consistent with prior work showing that feelings of compassion and empathy attune people to the needs of others and prompt behavior to improve others’ welfare.”

And Professor Flynn notes that “those in lower socioeconomic classes may be higher in baseline levels of compassion than their upper-class counterparts – probably because they have seen more suffering. And it may be this differential that – unless moderated – drives class-based differences in prosociality.”

These studies show that there’s a lot of opportunity for community and nonprofit leaders to consider how they craft messages that inspire and educate donors about worthy causes – and to remember that those who may only be able to give a little can still make a huge difference!

Fascinated by this subject and want to read more? Subscribe to Professor Frank’s prosocial column.


  1. Mike Lanza April 25, 2011 at 11:03 am

    I’m an upper-middle class guy who devotes 100% of his time to what I consider to be a great cause: helping parents figure out how to give their children a vibrant life of play in their neighborhoods. (See In other words, I do this instead of working a full-time job. This does not show up as “philanthropy” in statistics, but it’s a substantial contribution to society nonetheless.

    I know a lot of people like me who devote a lot of very valuable time to good causes for which they expect no monetary return. I would suggest that the upper- versus working-class statistics on giving are a bit skewed because of this.