The School of Philanthropy

Growing Up Giving

Growing Up Giving

Ninety percent of children give to charity, and parents’ talk about philanthropy matters

How do children learn to be philanthropic?

Adult giving and volunteering are often based at least in part on behavior that begins much earlier in life, and parents play a big role in that. In fact, not just whether but how parents teach their children about giving is important, according to a new study conducted by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI) at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy in partnership with the United Nations Foundation.

Nearly 90 percent of children ages eight to 19 give to charity. Children whose parents talk to them about giving are 20 percent more likely to give than children whose parents don’t discuss philanthropy, the study found.

Importantly, that finding holds true for children from varying backgrounds—children who have conversations with their parents about giving have a much greater likelihood of donating to charity as children, regardless of the child’s sex, age, race, or family income.

Teach Your Children Well

The study affirms that kids don’t have to be rich to be charitable. “No matter where you’re from or who you are, if you have a role model for charitable behavior and you understand the significance of your actions then you’re likely to give back,” says Elizabeth Gore, resident entrepreneur at the United Nations Foundation. “I don’t think that was the assumption prior to this study.”

While lower income parents are more sporadic in talking to their children about giving, there was no statistically significant relationship between family income and whether or not talking was effective.

The fourth and latest report in WPI’s signature Women Give series, the study is among the first to analyze and compare how parents can best encourage their children’s charitable behavior. Drawing on the Child Development Supplement of the University of Michigan’s Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the research followed the giving habits of the same 903 children over two time periods: 2002–2003 and 2007–2008.

The researchers say parents should help their children understand the difference their giving will make.

“Telling a child, ‘You should give to charity because it’s the right thing to do’ doesn’t have as much of an impact as saying, ‘Giving to a homeless shelter will help provide food for homeless people, and they’ll be able to eat and be a little happier because they’re not hungry all the time,’” says Debra Mesch, Ph.D., director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute. “Describing for children how their charity can change someone’s life—rather than just general platitudes—seems to be what really needs to happen.”

Role modeling alone—defined in this study as parents giving to charity—isn’t as effective, the research found. Parents who want to raise charitable children should talk with them throughout childhood and adolescence about their own philanthropy.

Following up those conversations with hands-on opportunities is valuable, too.

“Young people are our future leaders. This next generation will have to tackle many challenges, so we must educate them on the issues and get them involved early on,” says Gore. “There are simple tactics we could use—they could donate their five dollar allowance or go volunteer for something that they are passionate about. We have the largest youth generation in history, and we need to learn how to motivate them.”

Share and Share Alike?

Previous Women Give studies found that men and women exhibit different motivations and patterns of giving and volunteering, and that women are more likely to give and to give more, all things being equal. Other earlier research indicates that women are more likely to volunteer—and to volunteer more time— than men. But there has been little to no research examining gender differences in children’s volunteer behavior.

Women Give 2013 investigated whether girls and boys give and volunteer differently, expanding WPI’s exploration of how gender affects charitable giving. Eighty-seven percent of boys and 88 percent of girls gave to charity during one or both of the two time periods studied. There was a wider gap in the number of boys and girls volunteering, with 50 percent of boys volunteering compared with 60 percent of girls. This indicates that girls are more likely than boys to volunteer, and suggests that adult volunteering is part of an ongoing pattern of behavior that begins much earlier in life.

Engage Future Generations

All children can learn to be philanthropic, the researchers say. Philanthropy helps children and adults develop a broader view of the world and their place in it. Learning to care about others, developing helping behaviors, and volunteering encourage empathy and a sense of responsibility for others.

“You don’t have to be a parent to use the results of this study,” says Gore. “We all have children around us, and we’re mentoring them in some way. This study is a great tool to help us think things through and have serious data to back up our actions.”

Although much has yet to be studied about how children’s giving habits develop and how they change between childhood and adulthood, this study gives ample evidence that the majority of today’s children give and volunteer.

“It shows great promise for the future of philanthropy that these children are giving—so how do we continue that behavior?” asks Mesch. “It’s important to really understand that conversations are a powerful way to shape behavior, and nonprofit organizations would be well served to provide opportunities for families to volunteer together. Because children’s giving can change as they become adults, we want to really engage our future generations now.”

M O R E  I N F O

Contact Debra Mesch at For more information on the United Nations Foundation visit Read the full report and learn more about the Women Give series at