Case Study Excursus

We breathe life into our static quantitative snapshots by investigating participation (or a lack of participation) in these various forms of generosity for each of our qualitative case studies. This begins by looking at participants who exemplify Big 3 giving practices, then cases that better exemplify the Little 6 forms, and then cases with low participation in any giving.

Case Studies of the Big 3

To explore the Big 3 further through qualitative data, we will look at Susan Baker, Ryan Dewey, Jackie Sawyer, Cindy Phelps, and Michael Johnson.

Susan Baker: Upper-Middle-Class “One and Done” Los Angeleno Susan Baker gives large amounts of money, volunteers many hours, and even takes some political action. Her case shows how being a highly resourced, upper-middle-class woman helps enable her generosity. She also engages in nearly all other forms of giving, including effort-heavy relational giving. As a very generous giver, Susan exemplifies the ways a high giver thinks about her activities and makes giving a priority in the midst of a busy life.

Susan’s general motto is “I think it’s more important to care for people than to give away money,” yet she still gives over $2,000 a year to charitable causes. When we asked her, “How much do you tend to think about or pay attention to the issue of volunteering—of giving time to charity, religion, or other good or needy causes or people?,” she replied:

Oh I, well I think about it a lot cause it’s pretty much a part of my day, every day... . I think everyone should volunteer... . I think everybody needs to give back. I think that volunteering time, everybody can afford some. And I think it’s critical for our community that everybody does some because it’s a way to actually touch and feel other people and have a stronger community.

Later in the interview we asked Susan, “About how much time do you spend volunteering for each of the groups that you volunteer for?” She replied, “A million hours [laughs] ... about 40 hours a month.” Thus Susan is personally and highly committed to giving to others, especially through volunteer work and effort-heavy relational giving.

We asked, “What do you think gives you that desire to volunteer? Where do you think that comes from?” She replied, “I don’t know. Part of it is just academic knowledge that ‘thou shalt give back.’ Part of it is seeing something that needs to get done and doing it. And realizing someone’s gotta do it or it’s not gonna get done, so. And since nobody’s gonna pay me or somebody else to do it, I’ll just do it.” Even in discussing whether she would like to volunteer more than she does now, she gave evidence of her high commitment to volunteering as a regular part of her life:

If there were more hours in the day, then I would certainly volunteer more. I mean there are so many projects that I would love to do. And there isn’t a meeting I go to that goes by without me coming away from it and saying “I could do that!” And then thinking “Okay stop, no you can’t.” So it’s not so much that necessarily I want to do it, but there’s a need out there and I think I might be able to do a good job at it. Which is not to say I could do a good job at everything, like I never, ever, ever sign up to be on a phone bank.

I never, ever, ever volunteer to solicit money. Those are things I just don’t do. But like organizing events, I’m really good at that. So, if something needs to be organized, I love to jump in and do that, because I can.

This last statement hints at the themes that we will return to in chapter 4 regarding the importance of self-efficacy in believing that one’s efforts can make a difference.

Another element comes through in Susan’s words that she reflected on further into the interview: that sometimes it is possible to give too much. Susan described her level of interest in volunteering as almost a problem: “I’ve watched this pattern repeat itself over and over and over again with me. I will fill up my day with volunteer work, helping [do] whatever at the school, or whatever anyone else wants me to do, rather than spend the time doing, cleaning my house, exercising. I don’t know what it is.” Susan brings to life the issue that generosity delicately balances tending to one’s own needs and to the needs of others. Generous people, especially those who give large amounts, express the need to be careful not to lose themselves in too much giving to others. Susan continued by explaining that heavy volunteering can lead to a “martyr” complex:

Yeah, here’s the problem. I don’t know whether I’ve somehow inherited my mother’s martyr complex. I hope not, cause hers has led her astray. But objectively, when I sit there and look at my time,

I mean everyone’s got the same 24 hours in a day and it sucks, cause we could use some more. But I do my fair share of goofing off too. I watch more TV than I should. So certainly that hour or two I spend every day watching TV, I could certainly be doing something else with that time. But on the other hand, I’m not doing a very good job of taking care of myself. I mean I don’t put that high enough on my priority list. And so a lot of people I know who “don’t have the time to volunteer.” It’s because they’re spending an hour a day at the gym taking care of themselves. And another two hours a week at their book club, and two hours a week knitting in their knitting club. So the internal clock I might have— that internal warning signal I might have — [never] goes off to say, “Oh now you can’t volunteer.”

Susan gives so heavily of her time and attention that she has created a personal problem, not always remembering to attend to her own well-being. If this problem lasts long, she may end up not being helpful to others.

On top of all her volunteering, Susan and her husband have also been regular participants in a program in which they host exchange students in their home. But Susan is juggling so many forms of generosity that she had trouble remembering the exchange hosting as something to discuss. To prompt her to summarize her relational giving, we asked her, “Thinking about your personal relationships with other people, would you say you are a giving person?” She replied, “See the, when I think of that word, I think of that word as an emotional word. Emotionally giving. So I guess I would say I’m not. But if it’s in the sense of giving your time, then that’s an obvious one [yes].” We followed up, “Do you spend a lot of time taking care of other people?” Susan replied, “Taking care of other people? ... I wouldn’t use those words. My daughter self-raises, so I don’t feel like I really take care of her. [My husband is] a grown man, I don’t take care of him.” We then asked, “Has there ever been someone other than your immediate family who lives in your home?” Susan then recounted, “Oh yeah, we’ve had exchange students up the wazoo. We’ve had more than, sadly, I can count or remember.” Susan summarized all the foreign-exchange hosting they have done over the years by saying, “I tend to put other people’s wants and needs above my own. I guess I don’t really think of it as a sacrifice. Yeah.”

In summary, Susan and her husband give away large sums of money, and Susan regularly volunteers and relationally gives, including effort-heavy forms such as hosting foreign-exchange students. Giving appears to be part of the fabric of her life, wrapped up with her very identity. Though she is a busy, middle-class woman, she finds a way to make time—perhaps even to a fault—to give of her resources to help others.

Ryan Dewey: High-Achieving, Religious Midwesterner Ryan also exemplifies the life of a high giver, especially relative to his current standing as a graduate student. He gives a high percentage of his income and volunteers a large proportion of his discretionary time, which is limited. When we looked at financial giving as a percentage of income, he was one of the most generous financial givers among our interviewees. He lives on a modest graduate stipend (which some students consider too meager to live on without a student loan supplement), and yet he gives away a significant portion of this salary.

Ryan describes the targets and amounts of his giving by saying, “To the local church, I give 10 percent of my income, which is probably, over the course of the year, about $2,000. World Vision I pay two installments over the year, and I think it’s about $40 a month per child, so that is probably about $1,000 a year.”

He also volunteers a good deal of his available time, explaining that he volunteers time for charitable and religious causes because he sees it as part of an overall equation to give on behalf of others through either money or time, or some combination:

I’d say because there sorta is a time-money equation involved there, so I think your giving could be in terms of time, but it could also be in terms of money. I think there is a moral obligation to give, but exactly how that is broken down between time and money is probably pretty flexible.

Considering Ryan is a graduate student in a reputable program, in which some students find they barely have time to eat, let alone sleep, it is impressive that he finds the time to give an average of about 11 hours a month to help out with Campus Crusade for Christ. This is an especially intensive program that reaches out to international students to help build a community and practice speaking English with other students.

Though Ryan is very generous financially and with his time, he is not interested in taking political action. He said:

I just feel like it is not something I could really see myself doing, and hence I am not very political. I think I am fairly well-informed about a lot of political issues, and I think I have opinions about these issues, and I definitely want the best for my community, but I don’t think I would ever be one of those people who would be out in the streets running a rally or that sort of thing, so I don’t know. “Politically interested, but not politically active” would be how I would describe myself.

Ryan’s response represents a prototypical perspective among the vast majority of our interviewees regarding participation in political activities for charitable causes.

In summary, Ryan is a high giver who manages to donate time and money out of his more modest resources. He explains his strong commitments to giving as stemming from his religious beliefs, and he has no interest in political action activities.

Jackie Sawyer. Thrifty, Type-A, Religious, Midwestern Mom Jackie is another high giver who takes a tithing approach to her monetary donations and who also volunteers and gives relationally. Jackie and her husband give a very large amount of money, especially relative to their income level. They consider a 10 percent tithe to their church the baseline of their giving. Additionally they give money to various causes:

Church gets the top 10 percent; that goes to our organized congregation. Then there’s another, probably 5 percent that, like I said, that gets shuffled off and then it goes here, there, and everywhere. The kids’ school gets a decent amount. If they need something, they—we find a way... . And then, there’s other random [stuff, e.g., a mission trip, supporting an international child]. . There’s things that come up at church, a memorial fund for a young mom with two little kids. I have a friend who couldn’t pay tuition for school, and we paid her tuition. So there’s just kind of random, assorted things that cover the rest of it.

Thus the Sawyers give away approximately 20 percent of their after-tax income to their church and various other charitable causes.

Jackie also devotes a lot of time to volunteering for charitable causes. She said that she volunteers “through church. I teach a class to the two- and three-year-olds once a month.” She also volunteers at her children’s school “to serve hot lunch twice a month,” “volunteering to drive for field trips,” “volunteering to schedule all the fair workers,” and “painting for several eight-hour days already this summer.” She continued, “It’s just a lot of hours for school stuff. and then there’s all the other assorted things that just crop up, and you find [out] about where they need a hand.” She also appears to be generous in her relationships:

I’d say probably helping someone in need is more important than the giving of the money. The being able to be of assistance for a human being is huge. . Because, I guess, if someone’s physical needs aren’t met, someone’s emotional needs, the need to be able to function, then it doesn’t really matter if you give money because money doesn’t fix it. They have to be emotionally stable or—you have to meet those needs before you can meet financial needs.

Jackie finds a way to give of her time and attention relationally and still maintain volunteering and financial giving.

In summary, Jackie represents a tither who, with her husband, gives large donations to their church and other charitable causes. She also exemplifies how a busy stay-at-home mother finds time to volunteer and be interpersonally generous through her relationships. Her approach to giving seems to start in her immediate circle and radiate outward, and she focuses her giving attention primarily on her family, close friends, and religious congregation.

Cindy Phelps: Young, Professional Texan Tutors in New York City Cindy exemplifies someone who volunteers her time, albeit modestly, in the midst of a busy work schedule. She is also representative of Americans who do not give anything financially, despite available economic resources. In her case this appears to be due primarily to her persistent sense of financial insecurity, which seems to be a result of her mother having to file for bankruptcy during Cindy’s teenage years: “When I was younger, my family was pretty well off .. . But when I turned 13, my parents got divorced. So there was some financial difficulties. My mom filed for bankruptcy. So that was very, things were very bad at that time.” She goes on to say, “But things are better now.” Yet financial instability remains a worry for Cindy. When we asked her, “How much do you tend to think about or pay attention to the issue of financial giving—of giving money to charity, religion, or other good or needy causes or people?,” she said:

I don’t think about it very much. But I have given money. . I mean I’ll get like a mailer, like a St. Jude, the children’s network. I guess I’ve given them money before, so I get mailers all the time. And so I’m like “Oh I should probably give to them again,” because I use all those little address stickers that they send in the mail. So I think about that sometimes, but it’s nothing that, it’s not really on my radar.

We followed up by asking, “Do you have any idea why it’s not a big thing in your life?” And Cindy replied, “Probably because I don’t have, other than just giving $50 here and there maybe. It’s not something I really have the wherewithal to do, to make huge gifts to anyone or like set up my own kind of foundation. Just financially limited.”

Despite giving very little of her relatively high income, Cindy does volunteer regularly. We asked her how much she thinks about volunteering, and she said, “I think about it quite often because during the school year I volunteer through the Junior League with programs for after-school children and programs for Section 8 housing residents.” She does this once a week for a couple hours. It seems mostly to be a work-networking opportunity, however, though it is still a way that she gives to the community.

Like so many Americans we talked to, Cindy specifically chooses not to be involved in taking any kind of political action: [1]

things. I mean, I plan on voting. I just think that the state legislature is so messed up. I mean politics here, politicians here are on a scale the worst schmucks you’ve ever come across. It’s ridiculous.

In summary, Cindy is a modest volunteer of her time despite being among those with the least discretionary time available. She does not give financially, despite having economic means, apparently due to a residual financial insecurity from her childhood that colors her perception of her economic resource availability. And she exemplifies someone who gives possessions as a form of generosity.

Michael Johnson: Hard-Working, Politicking,

D.C. Widower Takes Action

Among our more unusual Big 3 givers, Michael is prototypical of the few Americans who put most of their “giving eggs” into the basket of political action. Being politically active is so central to his identity that when we asked him if he thought life had a purpose, he responded, “I think life has a, certainly has purpose. And I think it’s more than just what you’re doing for yourself, and also for your family, but also what you do for others.” He then recounted a number of things he had helped accomplish through taking political action and described them as “an achievement, in my judgment, and something that I could point to and was very satisfied in terms of achieving.” When we followed up by asking if he could put his life purpose into one or two sentences, he said:

I would say that it is to be helpful for others as well as working for your own interests and your family’s interests. One simple sentence,

I guess, compounded]. I mean the fact that you can do more than one thing, and these things are not mutually exclusive. I mean you can work to benefit your family but also work to benefit others too.

In this way Michael explicated how taking political action on behalf of the collective good was a core part of his identity and life purpose. One reason he is so politically involved may be that in his career he has met many people who are also well-educated and generally active in their community. He describes this by saying, “One of the things that benefits me in terms of my work is that I come in contact with so many different kinds of people. And you try to draw upon what you think are the good aspects, their personalities and their lives.”

Michael does not think other Americans have the same degree of political consciousness:

At times, I mean from a political standpoint, I become sort of disenchanted with the way that I think Americans react, but this is not going to make me a manic-depressive or something like that. I love my country very much, but I think that Americans have a tendency to be very lazy from a political standpoint. What are examples? More than half the people in the country cannot identify their U.S. representative. I think more than half the people in the country could not even identify one single Supreme Court justice. Americans are not all that well-informed as they should be, in my view.

Perhaps his motivation to give so much of his time to political causes is the thought that no one else will do it.

While Michael also participates in giving monetarily and in other types of volunteering, these also have political angles. His main financial giving is to support political causes: “I contribute to political campaigns. I would say the past election, for 2008, I’m estimating maybe like $2,500 to $3,000 I contributed.” In addition to contributing financially, he also spends time taking other forms of political action. For example:

I write statements on a wide range of issues, on economic issues and aging issues, and then I’ve given those to certain groups. I was asked at one time to run for office and was very seriously considering [it]. This was very long ago. I was much younger. And my wife was a little reticent about privacy, and we decided, well, she preferred to have our privacy, and I thought this was a joint decision, and so I went along with what she said, and I did not, you know, run for office.

In summary, Michael exemplifies the kind of American giver who contributes toward the betterment of others through taking political action. Even his financial and other volunteer activities are politically directed.

Big 3 Summary

Susan, Jackie, and Michael show that one’s resources do aid in creating a more abundant and robust giving portfolio. And yet Ryan and Cindy demonstrate that having financial means is not a key that automatically unlocks generosity in people. Ryan is able to practice high levels of giving despite his currently limited financial resources, and Cindy is able to practice moderate levels of volunteering despite her busy work schedule. Thus these case studies illustrate our quantitative findings that resources clearly play a role in people’s generosity, but they do not entirely determine it.

  • [1] try not to get involved in politics. I really, I just try not to getinvolved. I mean I’m aware of politics and people’s positions on
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