What parents say and do with regard to charitable giving and volunteering makes a big difference in the charitable activities of their children once they have grown up, according to a research study released March 29. Indeed, Heart of the Donor found parental behavior to be more influential than religion, politics, race, household income or any other measured factors on the generosity of today’s Americans.

The study, Heart of the Donor, was commissioned by Russ Reid Co. of Pasadena and conducted by Grey Matter Research & Consulting of Phoenix.

“The data clearly shows that parental behavior has a very substantial correlation with the eventual behavior of children once they are grown,” Ron Sellers, president of Grey Matter Research, said in a statement. “While the research doesn’t show an absolute one-to-one correlation, in real terms today’s volunteers are 125% more likely to have come from parents who encouraged their children to volunteer, and 145% more likely to have come from parents who frequently volunteered, than they are to have come from parents who really never did those things.” 

Lisa McIntyre, senior vice president of Russ Reid, added that nonprofit groups can encourage today’s donors to talk to their children about giving and volunteering, model the behavior and share the experience with them. “The data clearly shows that when these things are done, it has a long-lasting effect on kids,” she said.

Among the parental behaviors tested in the study, six were correlated with the behavior of today’s adults:

  1. Gave money to a church or other place of worship
  2. Gave money to nonprofit organizations other than a place of worship
  3. Talked to you about the nonprofit organizations they supported and why they supported those organizations
  4. Took you to church or another place of worship
  5. Volunteered their time to help nonprofit organizations other than a place of worship
  6. Encouraged you, even as a child, to volunteer your time to help nonprofits

Parental Influence

Respondents were asked how often their parents (or the people who reared them) engaged in 10 different behaviors while they were growing up, such as volunteering, making charitable donations and talking with them about these behaviors.

Sixty-two percent of today’s adults said their parents frequently took them to worship services, encouraged them to save money (61%) and personally donated to a church or place of worship (52%). Nearly half said their parents regularly talked to them about how to handle money wisely.

Parental activity related to donating and volunteering (other than giving money to a place of worship) was much less frequent. One-third said their parents frequently volunteered with a place of worship, and another 28% said their parents did this occasionally.

Only 22% recalled their parents frequently encouraging them as adolescents to volunteer their own time, with another 37% saying their parents did this occasionally. Twenty percent remember their parents frequently encouraging them, even as children, to give money to nonprofits, with another 36% saying this happened occasionally.

Just 18% remembered their parents frequently giving to nonprofits (with another 36% reporting their parents did this occasionally), while 17% recalled their parents frequently volunteering with nonprofits (and 34% saying they did this occasionally). Least common was for parents to talk to their children about which nonprofit organizations they supported and why. Just 15% reported this taking place frequently, with an additional 36% saying it happened occasionally.

Evaluating Parental Influence

Beyond the frequency, the study evaluated the actual role of parental influence in two different ways. One method simply compared how people behave today with how they recalled their parents behaving when they were growing up. This comparison shows strong links between the two.

For instance, among people who said their parents frequently gave money to a place of worship when they were growing up, 55% themselves gave money to a place of worship in the last year, while those who said their parents occasionally gave money to a place of worship, 39% are donors to a place of worship today. And among those who said their parents rarely or never gave money to a place of worship, 24% themselves currently support a place of worship today.

Financially supporting a nonprofit organization other than a church or place of worship shows a similar pattern. Among people who recalled their parents frequently supporting nonprofit organizations, 52% are themselves donors today. Among those who saw their parents provide occasional support, 46% are now donors. But among people who rarely or never saw their parents model this behavior, only 26% are donors today.

The same kind of effect can be seen based on whether parents talked with their children about the nonprofits they supported and the reasons why. When parents did this frequently, 51% of today’s adults are donors. When parents did this occasionally, 44% are donors. But when parents rarely or never did this, just 32% are donors.

Even among people who have not financially supported a nonprofit organization in the last year, parental behavior appears to have been influential. Among non-donors whose parents gave frequently, 11% are not open to contributing to a nonprofit in the near future, whereas among those whose parents gave occasionally, it is 21%. But among non-donors with parents who rarely or never supported nonprofits, 43% are not open to contributing in the near future.

The same types of parental influence can be seen with volunteering. Forty-nine percent of people who grew up with parents who were frequent volunteers with nonprofit organizations volunteered with a nonprofit in the past 12 months, compared with 31% of those whose parents occasionally volunteered and 20% who who never saw them give their time.

The second method of evaluating the data was through a complex set of statistical tests. Grey Matter Research ran a factor analysis on the 10 parental behaviors, followed by a regression analysis and came up with those six behaviors that influenced children, while four showed no individual correlation.

Once these six behaviors were combined, parents were ranked statistically from low to high in terms of overall behavior. The behavior scores were then compared against the behavior of today’s adults.

One overall finding of great importance emerged, according to the statement: Parents with little to no participation in those six behaviors have about a 25% chance of raising a child who ends up as a donor; while those with frequent participation in many of the above behaviors have a greater than 80% chance of raising a child who turns out to be a donor. Parental involvement is stronger than other predictive factors:  ethnicity, education, household income, age and even whether respondents are currently volunteers.

Not only does parental involvement account for much of the question of whether people give, it also helps predict how generously they give. The more frequently parents engage in each of these six behaviors, the more generously their children end up giving. (The study defined generosity as the total amount of money given to nonprofits over the past 12 months as a percentage of the donor’s household income.)

Russ Reid Company’s McIntyre noted that nonprofit organizations can help ensure the future of charitable giving by encouraging today’s parents to pass along their charitable values to their kids. “It can be tempting to focus only on the needs of today, but we also have to be concerned about future generations,” she said.

Heart of the Donorwas conducted in May 2010 by telephone and online among a nationally representative sample of 2,005 American adults, in both English and Spanish.

Grey Matter Researchhas provided information and research support to for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations since 1996. Russ Reid, a 46-year-old firm, is the fundraising partner of some 200 nonprofit organizations across the U.S. and Canada.