‘Silver Lining’ by COVID-19: Americans are generous

April 12, 2022 – Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Ivy Dash, a freelance photographer based in Closter, NJ, realized that the Closter Volunteer Ambulance and Rescue Corps was overwhelmed and struggling with the number of people affected by the virus.

She wanted to do something to help.

Dash has invited people to sign up for veranda photos – where a photographer takes photos of a family outside, from a distance – and asked their customers to donate to the group.

It was a huge success, says Dash. “The pandemic was a unique opportunity because everyone was sitting at home; whole families were together in lockdown, including children mostly in college.”

Her work grew. A local real estate agent invited her to photograph some of her clients, with proceeds donated to her favorite charity. Soon, Dash did veranda photography in several weeks, with all proceeds going to charity.

Dash may have seen porch photography as a way to build her own business in a financially stressful time, but she chose to use it as an opportunity to help others – and, according to a new report, many other Americans did the same during the pandemic.

Researchers studied the relationship between the presence of COVID-19 and generosity in the early months of the pandemic and found that people were generous with their money when the virus threatened their province, says the study’s lead researcher, Ariel Fridman , a PhD candidate at the University of California, San Diego.

“Between the uncertainty, fear and tragedy of the pandemic, we find a silver lining: people became financially generous to others in the presence of a COVID-19 threat,” he says.

‘Catastrophe Compassion’

Earlier research has provided “various predictions” about how people will respond to major crises, such as natural disasters and wars, Fridman says.

On the one hand, people may shy away from practices that take into account the needs of others, because fear and uncertainty of thinking they are a higher risk drives people to act out of self-preservation.

In light of these findings, one might expect that people threatened by COVID-19 may behave more selfishly than those who are not threatened. In fact, there were many stories in 2020 of people throwing up things like toilet paper and masks.

On the other hand, other research suggests that when groups face a common threat, they have stronger social cohesion, altruism, and cooperative behavior — a pattern of cohesion and helping one another, sometimes called “disaster compassion.”

And some research has found that communities that go through disasters can have both positive and negative reactions.

Higher threat, give higher

Fridman and colleagues studied the relationship between COVID-19 distress and generosity by examining two datasets.

The first was taken from Charity Navigator, the largest independent charity evaluator in the world that maintains records on charitable donations, including the amount donated and in which province the donor resides. The researchers looked at giving patterns to 696,924 people living in the US from July 2016 to December 2020.

The greater the threat of COVID-19 (based on the number of deaths a particular province had), the more generous residents of that province were. In counties with a higher COVID-19 threat, the total amount of money donated in March 2020, compared to March 2019, increased by 78%. Counties with a lower COVID-19 threat also increased their yield over the same period, but by less (55%).

The researchers found a similar pattern in April 2020, compared to April 2019: on average, provincial level yields in high-threat areas increased by 39%; by 29% in counties with medium threat; and by 32% in counties with low threat, compared to no threat.

Repeated donors were more likely to donate to charities for human services such as food banks and services for the homeless rather than for other reasons.

Coming Together

The researchers also analyzed a second dataset that examined generosity in a more controlled setting. It consisted of 1,003 people in the US who played a game in which one player (the “dictator”) received $ 10 and had to decide how to divide the money between themselves and another, typically unknown, randomly chosen person. She played this game every month, six times, from March to August 2020.

Instead of maximizing their own financial payments and giving no money to others, the “dictators” increased their donations (relative to an average of $ 2.92) by 9% under low threat, 13% under medium threat, and 8% under high threat, compared to no threat.

Although the presence of COVID-19 was associated with it being more generally generating, the level of threat did not seem to affect the level of giving in the “dictator game.”

“People come together in the presence of a shared threat and demonstrate a willingness to support others,” the researchers write, “despite the uncertainty about their own health and financial well-being.”

‘The more you give, the more you get’

It “remains to be seen whether increased generosity will last much longer than the pandemic,” says David Maurrasse, PhD, founder and president of Marga Inc., a consulting firm that provides advice and research to charities and community partnerships.

Maurrasse, who is also an adjunct research scientist at Columbia University’s Climate School in New York City, noted that the pandemic will have long-term effects, especially among groups of people who were already significantly underweight.

“Therefore, any increase in generosity should transform from relief to reimagining, because the pandemic has affected so many aspects of life, from health to education to local economies, and beyond,” he says.

Dash’s porch photography, which began with a charitable focus, ended unexpectedly with building her business. “The takeaway for me is that the more you give, the more you get,” she says.

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