University of Chicago establishes initiative to study giving scientifically

December 05, 2012

The University of Chicago has established the Science of Philanthropy Initiative to explore the underpinnings of philanthropy by employing an interdisciplinary approach that includes strategic partnerships with the fundraising community.

"Philanthropy is a key component of our economy, and despite the recent research in this area, the basics of the economics of charity remain ill-understood," said John List, the Homer J. Livingston Professor and chair of Economics, the director of the initiative and principal investigator of the study. List is a leading expert on philanthropy and has conducted a number of field experiments to determine why people give, what keeps them motivated, and the interrelationships of charities, the government and individuals.

Joining List as co-principal investigator is Anya Samak, assistant professor in consumer science and economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Samak was a Griffin Postdoctoral Research Scholar at the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics for the past several years. Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Professor in Psychology and Psychiatry at UChicago, is a co-investigator--bringing to the project his expertise on the development of empathy, morality and pro-social behavior across cultures.

The Science of Philanthropy Initiative is supported with a $4.8 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation. "The generous grant from the Templeton Foundation allows researchers around the world to develop an in-depth understanding of the underlying motives for charitable giving that will allow us to advance new strategies for soliciting gifts, improve donors' well-being and increase giving," List said. "As governmental bodies reduce funding to social service agencies and other worthy organizations, philanthropy will become increasingly important in maintaining these vital services."

Researchers will conduct studies to answer the big questions about philanthropy: Why do people give? How do people give across the life cycle and across cultures? How can philanthropy be increased?

Researchers from the Economics and Psychology departments at UChicago will collaborate with scholars from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Georgia State University, Brown University and the University of Minnesota. The project will conduct research to develop a deeper understanding of the types of social preferences that shape philanthropic giving and to apply this knowledge to both practitioners and policymakers interested in philanthropy and the private provision of public goods.

"In addition to developing philanthropic science as a field of study, SPI will serve as a catalyst of innovative partnerships," said List. "By bringing together social scientists, charitable organizations, individual donors and interested policymakers, SPI will provide a new disciplinary focus that will transform the philanthropic market."

SPI will host an annual conference, speaker and webinar series, and a competitive small grants program.
Scholars who will assist and consult for the initiative include Avner Ben-Ner, professor in the Center for Human Resources and Labor Studies (formerly the Industrial Relations Center) in the Carlson School of Management and Affiliated Professor in the Law School at the University of Minnesota; Michael Price, an associate professor in economics in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University, and Louis Putterman, professor of economics at Brown University.

More information about this project can be found at

University of Chicago

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