The pandemic’s impact on individual generosity

How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect people’s volunteering, donating, and helping behaviors? A report by SP2 faculty and students summarizes a nationally representative study aiming to answer this question.

It is reasonable to assume that individual generosity was affected by the pandemic. For a new study by a team at Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice (SP2), researchers revised previous research on trends in generous behavior with respect to four categories: formal volunteering, formal donations, informal volunteering and/or donations, and other prosocial behavior, and focused on the particular behavior in the early stages of the pandemic.

Graphic illustration of essential worker delivering groceries to an older couple

For the context of the study, generosity is defined as the ways in which individuals help others independent of or through organizations for various purposes, ranging from acts that improve quality of life, protect the environment, enhance tolerance and coexistence, strive for equity, and promote sports, culture, and education. With collaboration and funding from the Generosity Commission of Giving USA, SP2 professors Ram Cnaan and Femida Handy, along with Ph.D. in Social Welfare students Tiana Marrese, Daniel Choi, and Anna Ferris conducted a survey asking respondents to report their behaviors both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The results, released in “Generosity Trends and Impacts: Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic in the USA,” represent the first large nationally representative data on volunteering, donating, and other prosocial, or generous, behavior before and during the pandemic. Questions asked respondents about volunteering and donating in “formal” contexts (involving established nonprofit organizations) and “informal” contexts (involving friends and neighbors), as well as other positive contributions to one’s community.

Among a number of findings, the report documents that virtual volunteering increased and in-person volunteering decreased. The total number of donors decreased, while the average donation amount increased significantly, by over 200%. Informal volunteering and/or donating remained stable at high levels, engaged in by about two-thirds of respondents. While showing gratitude to frontline workers and ethical buying and buycotting intensified, donating blood decreased.

“Understanding the trends in volunteering and donating is vital for understanding the well-being of individuals and society,” the authors say. “It is too early to assess the long-term effects of the pandemic on generosity. However, we can ascertain how the pandemic impacted people’s generosity during the height of the outbreak.”

This story is by Juliana Rosati. Read more at SP2 News.