Social Capital and Philanthropy: An Analysis of the Impact of Social Capital on Individual Giving and Volunteering

2007, by Eleanor Brown & James M. Ferris

By Morgane
December 2016

Philanthropy is defined as a money donation or time giving, because of generosity, for the public good.

The study analyzes the connection between social capital and philanthropy at the individual level. It states that each individual has a stock of social capital that can be measured. The purpose is about evaluating its influence on the level of generosity. Usually, studies focus on the community scale, however Brown and Ferris consider that it does not take into account the diversity of individual’s embeddedness inside each group.

Measuring Social Capital

Social Capital, coined by Bourdieu, defines networks of collaboration and norms of trust and reciprocity between individuals that facilitates collective action. The term social capital suggests a better investment of the population into the community and also a better productivity.

Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey

The present study uses the 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey (Putnam, 2000) – an historical survey conducted by Harvard University and sponsored by community foundations, in order to collect the largest data base on the civic engagement of Americans, in 2000. The survey has been developed in a national scale, representing (not in a correct proportion but still) the diversity of the US population. The respondents were questioned by phone call about their engagement and opinions about local communities, in order to determine afterwards their own indices of social capital.

Indices of Social Capital

Because “social capital is not directly observable”, Brown and Ferris attempt to measure in a quantitative way the antecedents, the actual stock of social capital and its results, by means of individual behaviors and opinions.

Networks and Norms

The social capital is split in two types. (1) The embeddedness in network of social capital is represented by the involvement in groups, community and protest politics. (2) Norms is reflected by the indices of social trust, reciprocity and citizenship, measured by electoral participation. According to the assumption of the study, they both impact on giving or volunteering behaviors.

The Impact of Social Capital on Charitable Behavior

The purpose is to measure the impact of social capital on philanthropic behavior.

Measures of Giving and Volunteering

The survey asks the respondents if they have in the past year contributed to charity (how much they have given) for religious and non-religious organizations and then how many times they have volunteered (unpaid work to help people that are not your relatives). Thus three charitable behaviors are classified through religious giving (a), secular giving (b) and volunteering (c).


From the beginning, the assumption is that social capital has positive impact on giving (a & b) and volunteering (c). Then, they consider that education and religion both increase charitable giving. They also take into account the demographic variables, as the income, gender, cultural diversity, marital status, age, etc.

In brief, the survey intersects the variables of religious giving (a), secular giving (b) and volunteering (c) with the social capital as network (1) and as norm (2), human capital (3), religiosity (4), but also education (5), cultural diversity (5), etc.

Results and conclusion

Social capital (1 & 2), human capital (3), and religiosity (4) all directly influence charitable behavior (a, b & c).

More especially, the social capital (network-1 and norm-2) matters for the three philanthropic behaviors (a) (b) and (c). This proves that associational relationships are very important in the process of philanthropy: people create bonds and trust that make them more likely to be asked to give. The norm-based social capital (2) particularly increases secular giving (b) and volunteering (c): the belief in civic life in terms of trusting others is important in encouraging generosity for non-religious cause. Religiosity obviously increases giving for religious causes and reduces the secular giving.

In general, education is seen as an important direct factor in philanthropic behaviors. Nevertheless, this study underlines an unexpected and original point: the effect of education is smaller when they take into account social capital as a variable. As religiosity, education is a variable that first fosters development of social capital, and in that way impacts in a second phase on generous attitude.

As a final point, the religious and secular donations are two very distinct aspects of philanthropy and religious is always receiving more in quantity.


Innovative perspective of the study:

  • It stands for an individual analyze of the social capital
  • Generous attitude is divided in three clear aspects of religious giving, secular giving, volunteering
  • The decomposition of several variables shows the causal relationship between antecedents and results of the social capital’s stock

How to use the results:

  • The impact of education level is less a variable that influence philanthropy directly than an antecedent of social capital.
  • We need to define characteristics of social capital for our survey, because it seems to be the first agent of philanthropic behaviors.
  • The division of the social capital as network and as norm could be useful in order to determine if it is more the involvement in a community (trust & reciprocity) or the belief in civic life (act for the public good) that influence philanthropy. This data would show us in what extent the patron circle as a community encourages people to join (for the social contacts) and to give (is the social aspect increases the amount of donation?)