Is the pandemic making people more generous — or more selfish?

Today is Tuesday Giving, a day that encourages everyone to refocus on the good after the annual post Thanksgiving shopping blitz. People have donated millions to charity through Giving Tuesday fundraisers every year since the movement started in 2012. But what does generosity look like in 2020?

Has the Covid-19 pandemic – and the recession that accompanies it – made us more or less generous this year? Has it changed the way we give?

We won’t fully know this until 2020 is behind us as around 30% of total annual giving takes place in December, with many people their tax-deductible donations on the very last days of the year. But we already have revealing data on what people are donating.

“As far as we can tell, the general trend line is up,” Victoria Vrana, deputy director of the Gates Foundation, told me. She cited a study Fundraising Effectiveness Project, which collects real-time data from multiple online fundraising platforms. “They show an overall increase throughout the first half of the year. And what’s really interesting is the increase in small gifts and new donors.

While you expect high net worth donors to give more during a crisis, you don’t necessarily expect similar behavior from average people suffering from an economic downturn. Again 56% of U.S. households have given to charity or volunteered in response to the pandemic, and the first half of 2020 saw a 12.6% increase in the number of new donors to charity compared to a year ago.

Causes that are doing particularly well are those that have a clear link to the pandemic, such as hunger relief and health care. According to a Harris Poll survey conducted for Fast company, “Hunger relief was the most generous – 34%, among those who gave to charities during the pandemic – followed by religious organizations (31%) and health and medical organizations (29%) . “

Who follows with what Charity Navigator saw March to October: Donations to Feeding America have increased by 1,980 percent year over year, and donations to Doctors Without Borders have increased 131 percent year over year.

It’s obviously great that donors are trying to make sure people get food and health care during a pandemic. But while nonprofits focused on helping Covid-19 receive substantial funding in every U.S. state, including quick-response grants from community foundations that have raised over a billion dollars to that end – nonprofits that perform essential non-pandemic work are being left out.

“You see some areas are causing a huge influx, and others are drying up,” Vrana told me. “It’s a huge concern.”

The Wall Street Journal reported in August, even as Covid-19 donations skyrocketed, other charities were experiencing great success; With the cancellation of galas, auctions and fundraisers, nonprofits were really struggling to raise the funds they relied on. A sobering reflection is that some 1 million nonprofit workers in the United States have lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

A record year for direct cash transfers

On the positive side, the global nature of the pandemic has prompted some donors to think beyond their own backyards and embrace direct cash transfers as a means of delivering aid to people around the world.

“A very interesting and huge new trend that we have seen is this interest in giving directly to individuals,” said Vrana, noting that the site recently created by the Gates Foundation, which brings together verified giving opportunities to help people weather the pandemic, includes more than 40 funds that direct money to those in need. She added that trusted nonprofits like GiveDirectly, a charity with more than a decade of experience in delivering money transfers, have come forward in a big way during the pandemic.

GiveDirectly has implemented two emergency interventions: one in the United States, for which he raised $ 118 million, and one in African countries, for which he raised $ 76 million. The charity sent cash relief to 116,000 families in the United States and 342,000 families in Kenya, Liberia, Malawi and Rwanda.

“There is something unique about the way the central treasury has been in people’s response to this crisis. It’s different from previous crises, ”Joe Huston, CEO of GiveDirectly, told me. “You see a ton of cash relief funds going around, including people donating money themselves on Twitter. I haven’t seen a time like this where so many people from so many different types of philanthropy started with money transfers as the main tool in their toolbox. “

This year has also seen increased support for cash transfers in the form of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). With the pandemic generating so much financial loss and uncertainty, and with federal stimulus packages failing to meet the needs of millions, advocates have argued that citizens are in desperate need of some sort of guaranteed income. Spain’s government appeared to be listening, offering payments of up to 1,015 euros ($ 1,145) to the country’s poorest families, and Germany launched a new basic income experiment in August.

On both sides of the Atlantic, public support for UBI is higher than usual. When cognitive scientists Daniel Nettle and Rebecca Saxe interviewed people in the United States and the United Kingdom in April, May and September, they found that the pandemic reinforced support for UBI in both places.

However, they also have found some preliminary indications that people believe others will act more selfishly than cooperative in a pandemic.

When disasters strike, do people behave in a more generous or selfish manner?

As Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki has it documented, there are two basic stories that people love to tell about the behavior of human beings in times of crisis.

According to one story, people panic, flout social norms and behave in a selfish manner. The crisis unleashes an amoral free-for-all as each person gives in to a scarcity mentality and decides to look out for their own interests – hell with everyone.

The other story is just the opposite: people are wonderfully generous in the aftermath of a disaster! They donate money, they volunteer, they try to help their neighbors. We see more altruism and prosocial behavior during a crisis than we normally do.

The first story is often reflected in the media coverage. For example, after Hurricane Katrina, the New York Times described New Orleans as “the snake pit of anarchy, death, pillage, rape, marauding thugs.” And in part because of media portrayals, this lawless behavior is what many people expect in times of crisis. In study, people generally agreed with statements such as “When there is an emergency, members of the crowd act selfishly” and “When there is an emergency, social order collapses.”

But when you look at the historical record, it actually offers a lot of support for the second story. “Compassion in times of disaster,” writes Zaki, “is widespread and consistent; it follows earthquakes, wars, terrorist attacks, hurricanes and tsunamis, and – now – a pandemic. For example, as Covid-19 spread, volunteers around the world began to create self-help Google Docs. In these shared spreadsheets, they wrote down their contact details and offered to bring groceries or medicine to vulnerable neighbors. (Likewise, in Katrina’s wake, most of the people of New Orleans were peaceful and helpful to one another.)

Yet people in general still tend to believe the more pessimistic story of human nature. Athena Aktipis, a psychologist at Arizona State University, told me that was in part because people had internalized the work of the annals of psychology, behavioral economics, and evolutionary biology (think The selfish gene by Richard Dawkins) to signify that we usually look for # 1 in the face of adversity.

But recent work in psychology, including Aktipis’ own research with the Human generosity project, complicates this picture. She convinced her that times of crisis can bring out the best in us, as long as we don’t fear that others will take advantage of our willingness to cooperate.

In early March, she and her colleagues began asking people around the world questions designed to gauge their sense of cooperation. As the pandemic spread, they found that people increasingly agreed with statements such as “My neighborhood and I rise and fall together” and “All mankind and I rise and fall together”. In other words, people’s perceived interdependence with others has generally increased. In fact, people’s ratings of interdependence with all of humanity were actually higher than with their own neighborhoods. And the willingness of survey respondents to help citizens of other countries has increased.

The surge in generosity linked to the pandemic therefore did not surprise Aktipis. As she told me, “When people are most in need, that’s where most of the donation happens.”

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