Skip to Main Content
Mobile Menu

From the Vice President

Award-winning Boise State Research Shows Relationships Matter for Giving

Award-winning research in the human anthropology lab at Boise State University recently explored motivations and predictors in generosity — How does the social relationship between a donor and solicitor influence donation amounts? What individual characteristics explain decisions? What motivates people to be generous?

To find out, two undergraduate anthropology majors, Shane Scaggs and Delaney Glass, rolled out a nine-month research project involving volunteers in a charitable giving game where they could make choices with their money — where to give and how much to donate. The overwhelming theme of the study was that people’s expectations and life experiences determined where they gave, to whom and how much.

Scaggs and Glass formed a research cohort, set up a lab, plotted their research, wrote their abstract and designed an experiment involving volunteers to test their hypotheses. First, volunteers filled out a questionnaire gathering socioeconomic, demographic, and personal experiences, then they played games modeled for the experiment. Participants were given $10. They could choose to give some, all or none of their money, and they could choose where to give based on who was asking—a close family member, close friend, local nonprofit or local celebrity.

Conclusions showed that social relationships do matter. For example, an individual gave more to a close relative (than to a friend, local nonprofit or celebrity) when s/he felt his or her involvement in community affairs was unimportant for improving outcomes. People who donated less often to charity were more likely to donate if a relative solicited them for money. Life experiences and expectations also predicted donation patterns. People who volunteered on a regular basis gave more when a non-profit solicited them. The key here is relationships. Without them, there would have been no action to give (or less generosity).

What this tells us is really two things: It’s very important for us to show our community, alumni, donors and friends how their involvement is important. This builds trust and relationships that can reach a level of familial camaraderie that inspires giving. It also tells us that volunteers are not only extremely valuable for their time, but also that the relationship between volunteers and beneficiaries lends to charitable giving as well.

Findings of the research also included:

  • It’s still important to ask. 86% of the time charitable donations occur after some sort of solicitation.
  • Personal and tangible methods of solicitation are preferred.
  • Trust (in an organization) plays a role in people’s donations to a non-profit member, particularly in getting collective action started.
  • If an individual expected others to give a lot, they gave more themselves.

This study earned Scaggs and Glass a special award at the American Anthropological Association—the nation’s oldest and the world’s largest anthropology conference. And while the team receives recognition around the country, it is certainly notable that this work which has been described as “on par with that of some grad student and faculty presentations” has taken place right in our own backyard. Congratulations to the team and professor, John Ziker.


Laura C. Simic is vice president for advancement at Boise State University.

Learn more about the team and their research project titled “Four Pathways to Generosity: Evolutionary Mechanisms Deferentially Affect Charitable Donations,” overseen by department chair and professor, John Ziker.

This entry was posted in Annual giving, Philanthropy, Student success, University Engagement. Bookmark the permalink.