Toward an Appreciation of Generosity’s “Full Range and Flourishing”

Editors’ Note: Paul Schervish writes on the dangers of researchers equating generosity with formal charitable giving.

Just peruse studies and media commentary on charitable giving and you will see how often one financial group, region, gender, or race is called more “generous” than another on the basis of how much formal charitable giving that group carries out. Equating generosity with charitable giving gains headlines and plays into our unhealthy attraction to invidious comparisons.  I’ve been guilty of this myself: in 2005 my colleague and I at the Boston College Center on Wealth and Philanthropy released a preliminary report, “Generosity and Geography,” on charitable giving in Massachusetts. But since then we have been vigilant not to speak of charitable giving as generosity and have encouraged others to avoid doing so.

This is not just semantics.  To refer to patterns of charitable giving as patterns of generosity diminishes the souls who care for others in ways other than through charitable giving. It is time to stop referring to those who give more to legally recognized charitable organizations as “more generous” than those who assist others in family, work, and personal relationships.

Generosity is a quality of the soul that incudes but must no longer be equated with formal charitable giving. Generosity has two dimensions. First it is a disposition—a moral or spiritual orientation that inclines our affections to care for others. Second, generosity is a deed by which individuals dedicate financial assets, in-kind gifts, or personal services for the care of others. Generosity as a virtue combines this duality; it is the habit of fusing both our benevolent dispositions and practices of care.

As such, generosity is our obliging allocation of resources on behalf of our genus. Genusis our community of common origin and destiny, while osus (or osity) means being “full of” or “abounding” in. As such, generosity is the spiritual orientation and concrete practices that make our humanity more generative, abounding, and flourishing.

Aristotle explains that the root of philanthropy is philia, which is “friendship love” or mutual nourishment between two parties.  It begins with parent-child love and extends with appropriate variation through relationships in all spheres of life, including love for our self. Jesuit philosopher Jules Toner uses the notion of care rather than generosity.  Care is the way love is implemented. Care is meeting the true needs of both others and self, simultaneously, in every aspect of our daily round. For Thomas Aquinas, generosity entails the unity of “friendship love” for God, neighbor, and self. For all three of these thinkers, generosity is about a quality of being and a way of life that attends in all things to the true needs of members of our genus.

Regrettably, we still hear researchers and media equate generosity with individuals’ or groups’ formal charitable giving—that is, giving in, to, through, or for a charitable organization. Formal giving is just one aspect of generosity—and when looked at historically and globally, not the most pronounced. Philia existed before the emergence of legally authorized charities; and it exists today in far broader and more telling ways than charitable giving. As such, we should abandon the term “generosity” in comparing giving by gender, finances, states, zip codes and every other contrasting indices charting formal philanthropy. It is appropriate to have measures that compare groups in their charitable giving, but they should be considered charitable giving indices not generosity indices.

To do otherwise is to depreciate the many additional ways that individuals find morally and spiritually to be more important than giving to charities—such as care for ailing parents or children, saving to send children to college, putting aside funds for retirement, building a business, and providing remittances to poorer family members close at hand or across the seas.

For instance, recent Hispanic immigrants from throughout the hemisphere would have to be labeled “ungenerous” if we just looked at their formal charitable giving. They are far from ungenerous if we account for the full range of philia that encompasses their remittances, providing others with links to work, and their benevolence that welcomes subsequent immigrants into mutually nourishing multi-family and multi-generational households.

The discovery, communication, and application of knowledge on the full range and flourishing of generosity will advance our measures, appreciation, and esteem for the innumerable personal forms of care we provide others—those that exceed formal charitable giving in aspiration, amounts, and consequences.

-Paul G. Schervish

Paul G. Schervish is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and retired founder and director of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College. He was Fulbright Professor of Philanthropy at University College, Cork, Ireland, and serves as a consultant and speaker for families and for financial and development professionals.

One thought on “Toward an Appreciation of Generosity’s “Full Range and Flourishing”

  1. Alas, charitable giving can be readily measured quantitatively, generosity can’t – though the Charity Aid Foundation World Giving Index makes a stab at it. Paul Schervisch’s qualitative work exploring patterns of philanthropic action is very illuminating and far more valuable to fundraising than the quantitative work that has been done into giving.As Benjamin Disraeli may or may not have said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Thank you, Paul.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s