Generational Giving Differences: What’s It About?

 In Funders

How Can We Explain Generational Difference in Giving Behaviors?

There are a number of theories that attempt to explain generational differences in philanthropy and giving behaviors. Typically, they address the topic in a relatively basic manner, meaning that what they tend to focus on to the exclusion of all else is the dichotomous relationship between young and old, which is attributed to historical or experiential events. This post argues that there is more to the story than merely drawing conclusions based on these experiences.

What is the Effect of Unique Generational Experiences?

There are several useful takeaways from the Hartnett & Matan’s article, “Generational Differences in Philanthropic Giving,” which also focus on the young v. old dichotomy. The authors maintain that money matters most to older generations, but declines in importance with younger people (2014, p. 5). Similarly, they state that “older givers tend to be loyal to an organization, whereas younger givers are less consistent and more likely to be attached to stories, not a specific charity” (p. 6). But what I find most intriguing is their observation that donors respond to unique experiences of their generations. Quite right, research indicates that Baby Boomers, especially the older ones, are more affluent on account of their parents’ Depression-era savings and thriftiness. Furthermore, demographic shifts are creating a “gray wave” as the sheer number of older adults is on the rise (Pynes, 2013). As such, it appears on its face that Baby Boomers and older adults would be good targets for charitable solicitations by nonprofits.

What Does Psychology Say?

There is more to the story as revealed in psychological theory. One prominent theory that applies is Erikson’s psychosocial development theory of Generativity (McLeod, 2021). According to Erikson, personality develops in a predetermined order through eight stages of psychosocial development, from infancy to adulthood. Persons experience a psychosocial crisis during each stage that could have a positive or negative outcome for personality development. These crises can either be resolved internally or prevent healthy stepwise development if a person is unable to resolve the crisis.  “Generativity versus stagnation” is the seventh of eight stages of Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development. This stage takes place during middle adulthood (ages 40 to 65 years). Erikson believed that through generativity we develop a sense of being a part of the bigger picture and are often impelled to “do good” and “make our mark” prior to nearing the end of our lives. The impetus is on creating a legacy of sorts— through volunteering, creating, and giving back— to leave behind for both ourselves and future generations.

What Really Matters?

Therefore, despite the fact that obvious generational differences in gift-giving behaviors may exist based on experiential factors, I argue that there is an internal locus of control that also plays a significant role. It behooves fundraisers and solicitors to understand both externalities (i.e., historical, or experiential events) and internal motivations, such as Erikson’s theory of Generativity.

And if we can help you better understand gift-giving behaviors, please contact us today. 

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