Scratching the Generosity Itch
May 31, 2023 |Scott Kubie
Would you consider yourself to be a generous person? According to Barna Research, 81% of U.S. adults claimed to be completely or somewhat generous.[i] A similar question was posed to a professional gift consultant who has led or consulted on numerous major fundraising campaigns. What percentage of the population did he consider generous? Three percent. That’s a massive gap.
Even if you only include people who rated themselves as completely generous, experts identified that nearly ten times as many adults perceived themselves as completely generous. People overrate their generosity.
The tendency of people to overrate their performance is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. The researchers tested people on areas as diverse as logic, grammar, and sense of humor. People consistently held a higher opinion of themselves in each area than the facts warranted.
Driving ability is another area where people consistently overrate themselves. Nearly two-thirds of American drivers rate themselves as excellent or very good drivers. During presentations, I used to ask the audience how they rated themselves as drivers compared only to the people in the room. I asked approximately 2000 people the question, and people responded with extreme optimism. A woman who was legally blind rated herself as average. Only three people were identified as poor drivers. All three were identified by someone else. If the whistle-blower hadn’t been there, it is doubtful any would have identified themselves as poor drivers.
The tendency of people to overrate their performance is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. The researchers tested people on areas as diverse as logic, grammar, and sense of humor. People consistently held a higher opinion of themselves in each area than the facts warranted. [ii]
Generosity is particularly prone to exhibiting the Dunning-Kruger effect for the following reasons:
1. People want to feel good about themselves, especially if changing is costly. Who is willing to describe themselves as stingy or uncaring? If people describe themselves as uncharitable, the obvious solution is to give away money. For individuals trying to define their identities through purchases or keep up with their Facebook Friends, giving away money will hurt. An easier path is to lower the bar on what constitutes generosity.
2. It is easy to scratch the generosity itch. The advent of GoFundMe and other crowdfunding platforms makes it easy to donate to specific causes or people close to the donor. A donation every other month reinforces their self-image of being generous. Yet, the average GoFundMe donor gives $15 per donation. [iii] That is enough to make them feel good but doesn’t approach the level of generous giving for most Americans.
3. Generosity is difficult to compare. Jesus instructs us in Matthew 6:3-4 to give in secret. While helping to purify the giver’s intentions, it means those who donate a small percentage of income are unaware of how generous others might be. Contrast generosity to a golf league. If someone joins a league and routinely posts the highest score, unfounded optimism will quickly fade.
4. When it comes to judging generosity, appearances can be deceiving. I learned this lesson while attending a pre-service prayer group. There was an elderly woman in the group whom I assumed was “prayer rich” and “cash poor.” I estimated she gave around $1,000 per year. Later, I discovered she was wealthy and generous and often gave more than 100x my estimate. Missed it by that much.
If you’ve realized you don’t give as much as you could, don’t get wrapped up in waves of guilt. You’re not alone. Instead, go to God seeking guidance. Move towards Biblical benchmarks. Move forward with faith. If you are generous, send this article or some other encouragement to someone you think is ready to take a joyful step forward.
Scott Kubie, CFA
[i] Do U.S. Adults Consider Themselves Generous? | Barna Access (gloo.us)
[ii] Dunning-Kruger effect | Definition, Examples, & Facts | Britannica
[iii] How much does the average GoFundMe make? – Zippia