(Illustration by Ben Wiseman) 

Editor’s Note: In June 2014, the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society hosted its inaugural Junior Scholars Forum. The following article covers a not-yet-published research paper that was presented at the forum. To learn more about the paper, please email its author, Wesley Longhofer.

Scholars have been studying US charitable activity ever since Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the power of “voluntary associations” in his book Democracy in America. But relatively little scholarship has focused on charitable organizations outside the United States. Meanwhile, those organizations have been steadily growing in number. What accounts for that growth?

Wesley Longhofer, an assistant professor of organization and management in the Goizueta Business School at Emory University, studies worldwide philanthropic activity and focuses in particular on grantmaking foundations. His current research has two parts. The first part draws on information gleaned from the World Values Survey (WVS), a cross-national survey designed to capture differences in values and how those values relate to political and social indicators. In a “wave” of WVS conducted from 2005 to 2008, respondents were asked about their membership (or lack thereof) in a charitable or humanitarian organization. Using WVS data from 35 countries, Longhofer examined the factors that influence people to join a charitable organization or to start a charitable foundation. Among the factors that he reviewed are age, employment, income, church attendance, and an attribute that Longhofer calls “cosmopolitanism”—that is, the degree to which people see themselves as part of a world community. He also looked at how the occurrence of a natural disaster affects membership in charitable organizations.

Individuals, Longhofer discovered, are motivated to join a charity or to start a foundation not when disaster strikes or when they become aware of an unmet need, but as a result of cultural expectations about how people should confront social problems. He attributes the expansion of philanthropic activity to what some scholars call a “global moral order”—to a framework that values individual virtue and champions voluntary associations as a vehicle for advancing social justice and human rights. “I found no evidence that foundations are a response to a crisis or a need,” Longhofer says. Instead, they arise from a “belief that virtuous organizations matter,” he explains: “We praise virtue, and so we join virtuous organizations like NGOs.” And the same pattern, he suggests, holds for the creation of charitable foundations.

In the second part of his research, Longhofer examines the role played by grantmaking organizations in 106 countries between 1970 and 2005. To do so, he performed a statistical analysis of data taken from the Europa International Foundation Directory, which features descriptive information on more than 2,500 foundations, trusts, charities, and other grantmaking entities around the globe. He found that organized philanthropy is increasing in places where it previously had only a modest presence—in India, for example, and in parts of the Middle East. The foundations that are emerging in those regions tend to resemble their US counterparts. Software entrepreneurs in Bangalore, for example, “often cite [Mahatma] Gandhi and [Bill] Gates as their two models” for charitable activity, Longhofer says. “International norms really matter,” he adds. “Organizations are now trying to harmonize philanthropic laws so that it’s easier to set up foundations across countries.”

One notable finding from Longhofer’s research concerns the importance of large cross-national institutions such as the Clinton Global Initiative. Those organizations provide a critical source of legitimation for organized philanthropy, and they deserve more attention than they have received so far. “The global humanitarian system is becoming much more complex,” Longhofer says. “It’s important for scholars to map out the changing landscape of that global system.”

Dennis R. Young, a professor of public management and policy in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University, echoes that view. “What happens in philanthropy at the national level is affected by what’s happening in the world,” says Young, who notes that Longhofer’s research helps to illuminate that process. “Philanthropy is increasingly significant in [many] parts of the world, and it works in a global context. There are connections that you can’t ignore if you really want to understand it.”

Wesley Longhofer, “Institutional Origins of Global Philanthropy.”

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