Feeling good about giving: It's just the beginning


What grew into a years-long intensive research project began the way a lot of big ideas do—with a curiosity that wouldn’t let go. We were working on a project to figure out how to make charitable giving a little easier and a lot more fun. In our early research, we quickly learned a few facts:

  • People enjoy giving to charities—it makes them feel good.
  • People recognize and give to big charities, but they also donate to local organizations and causes that are meaningful for personal reasons.
  • With annual household giving averaging $2,974, and total annual giving topping $373 billion in 2015 alone, according to Giving USA, supporting charities is an important part of American life.

We loved asking our interviewees this question: What are you favorite causes, and why do you enjoy giving to these charities? As our team interviewed more and more people, we noticed something else. Something that felt big and important and, well, good. When people talked about giving, they relaxed. They became more upbeat. They leaned in. They kept on talking. They were proud, confident…emboldened even. And they were happy. They felt better!

Try this: Think about the last time you made a gift to your favorite cause. You’re probably smiling right now just thinking about it.

At first glance, philanthropy and positive psychology appear to have very little in common. Philanthropy is a term generally associated with giving money to charities, doing good in the community, and creating social value. Positive psychology usually connotes an academic approach to emotional strengths and virtues that enable people to thrive.

But there is indeed a connection. After all, philanthropy, according to the classic dictionary definition, means a “love of humanity” in the sense of caring, nourishing, developing, and enhancing “what it is to be human” on both the benefactors’ and beneficiaries’ parts. The connection is right there.

What’s more, the benefits aren’t limited to your mood. After scouring websites, journals, blogs, articles, and more, we uncovered dozens of studies linking philanthropic behavior and improved physical health. Research suggests activities such as volunteering and giving can lead to a longer life, lower blood pressure, and better pain management.

We were hooked on the well-documented positive effects of charitable giving and wanted to know more. We wanted to understand the experience of charitable giving from the broadest point of view possible to discover human behaviors and emotions that extended beyond the act of writing a check and into the well-rounded lives of the people we were interviewing.

We discovered that many people wondered what “counted” as doing good; for example, did being on a school fundraising committee count if they weren’t the head of it? Lots of people commented that they loved celebrating at charity events and thought that should count as making a difference. We heard about marketing favorite causes on Facebook. We heard about people cleaning out their closets and donating clothes to a homeless shelter.

We heard many, many good things.

We also heard one message loud and clear: People are doing good in a variety of ways, and they want to feel even better about it.

From the very first interview in our research, it was overwhelmingly clear that giving to charities was not the only philanthropic activity going on in the day-to-day lives of people like you and me. Giving turned out to be just one of ten social impact behaviors regularly practiced and enjoyed by the people in our study.

We knew we were onto something. Through our hundreds of interviews and experiments in real-life situations, we observed and documented the point of view that philanthropy embraces the full range of social impact behaviors:

  1. Caring about health and wellness
  2. Giving to charities
  3. Volunteering at a charity
  4. Serving on a charity’s board of directors
  5. Purchasing products that support a cause
  6. Recycling and respecting a sustainable environment
  7. Donating items of food and clothing
  8. Marketing a favorite charity
  9. Sharing with family and friends in need
  10. Celebrating at community events

These are the 10 Ways to Do Good that define today’s social impact culture mindset. This contemporary view of making a difference has completely changed the way each of us as humans look at philanthropy, whether we are aware of it or not.

Hundreds of executives, employees, parents, children, and grandchildren in our study loved the 10 Ways to Do Good. They loved talking about them. And when they did, they were happy, authentic, confident, empowered, and full of optimism and possibility. Their hearts and minds were fully engaged.

The best part? Engaging hearts and minds is just the beginning. Imagine the power of a Social Impact Culture Roadmap in the workplace to drive individual, team, and organization performance. On the flip side, a failure to engage your constituents' hearts and minds could mean that the social impact culture mindset will disrupt your strategic plan for growth. Is social impact culture in your organization creating reward, or risk? You've got a choice.