Understanding community giving

By Jenna Fracassi | 7/9/17 9:33pm

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GVL / Courtesy - johnsoncenter.org Michael Moody, Ph.D. is the Frey Foundation Chair for Family Philanthropy


Grand Valley State University’s Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy has recently released a report designed to understand philanthropic dynamics on a community level. The study, "Understanding the Philanthropic Character of Communities," applies a new method for assessing the philanthropic character of a community.

“Our primary goal was to try to develop a way of studying something that’s very hard to study: the philanthropic ‘character’ of a community,” said Michael Moody, Frey Foundation chair for family philanthropy and research team member, via email. “People often say things like, ‘We are a generous community’ or ‘Philanthropists in our city are pretty innovative.’ We have this sense that there is a charitable personality, if you will, that pervades any given place.

But that personality is hard to study and analyze systematically with good data and careful methods. In this study, we developed an initial methodology for doing that and ‘tested’ that method on two communities we know well: Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo.”

When explaining the new research method, Michelle Miller-Adams, political science professor at GVSU and member of the report’s research team, said via email that they used a variety of publicly available data sources to paint a picture of the patterns of giving in the two communities.

“We rounded this out by speaking with some knowledgeable observers of philanthropy in the two places and compiling three comparative case studies based on public information,” she said. “All these sources of information could be used to analyze other communities.”

The cities of Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, located 50 miles apart, share many similar community features, but there are also differences in their philanthropic character. The research presented in the study looked at the different community approaches to giving to downtown development, the arts and K-12 education.

“We focused on the communities of Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo because of our location and personal connections to these places and also because they provide an interesting comparison,” Miller-Adams said.

Research showed that both Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo are highly philanthropic communities. Both areas have well-established family and community foundations, and more giving is done through foundations in both counties than is done nationally.

The study states that “this high level of philanthropy reflects the fact that both communities have a base of major donors who have made or inherited their money in the community and who expressed a clear expectation to give back to that community.”

According to Miller-Adams, the main focus of the team’s research was on the activities of major donors within the two communities. This concentration was the result of the team believing that these wealthy individuals play a large part in shaping the philanthropic character of a community.

“We found lots of similarities between the two communities but also some interesting differences in the areas of how donors give and the causes they give to,” Miller-Adams said.

The study compared sources of giving, what influences giving and why donors give, as well as different ways of giving. In Grand Rapids, the study identified that faith-based social capital accounted for much of the giving. In other words, religion was one of the key factors that contributed to high giving in the city.

In both Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, community expectation and orientation was recognized as being a major influence in giving. This is the idea that there is a shared expectation for major donors to give back to their communities and that donors are driven by their love for the community when it comes to giving.

Some of the different forms of giving include foundation giving, corporate giving, anonymous giving, named giving, place-based giving and collaboration. The study also looks at the different tendencies and focus of donors in how and where they donate their money.

The study, which Miller-Adams said was done in several stages over several years, involved the work of a graduate student assistant and four undergraduate Mawby Fellows, as well as the three researchers. GVSU's research team included Miller-Adams and Johnson Center researchers Moody, Grace Denny and Teri Behrens.

“One of the most exciting aspects of the research was to be involved in a truly collaborative process that spanned multiple disciplines and generations,” Miller-Adams said.

The report gives community members a chance to see their own philanthropic identity, while also helping them to better understand their community. The explanatory study presented in the report is meant as a stepping stone for additional research.

“The report can help researchers, of course, who want to be able to study things like philanthropic patterns in communities, how norms for giving get established in places and how they get perpetuated over time, and other questions like that,” Moody said. “But the report can also be useful to people in those communities that are studied using this method—people like nonprofit professionals or fundraisers who need to adapt their work to the distinctive philanthropic character of the community—and to the donors themselves who are often very proud of their local philanthropic character and want to keep it going.”

To see the full report, visit bit.ly/PhilanthropicCharacterReport.

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