More About the Initiative

Established in 2009 with a $5 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, the initiative grew out of Smith’s work on Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money (Oxford 2008). That book examines the complex reasons for the illiberal financial giving of American Christians, and suggests that more liberal giving could accomplish world-transforming change. The research Smith began there is now being extended and developed by a Notre Dame research group conducting interviews around the country in order to understand why some people practice generosity and others don’t.

The initiative has been recognized by both President Jenkins and Dean of the College of Arts and Letters, John McGreevy, as the kind of research effort that is right at home at Notre Dame. “Research projects such as this that investigate broad moral questions and the common good are integral to Notre Dame’s academic mission,” said McGreevy. “Professor Smith’s work will bring scholars across the country and from many disciplines into conversation on a topic of fundamental importance.”

Three Components and a New Field of Inquiry

The initiative has three components: the Request for Proposals (RFP), the Notre Dame Research project (NDR) and a communications effort. The RFP is an international funding competition designed to stimulate scientific research on generosity. The competition proceeded in two waves and was decided by a panel of experts in the human and social sciences. The first phase ended in November 2009, when the initiative granted awards of $250,000 to $500,000 to four projects. The second phase ended in July 2010, when awards of up to $150,000 were granted to nine more projects.

The second component of the initiative (NDR) is an original, primary data research project conducted by a research team here at Notre Dame. Employing various innovative research methods, NDR will study the operation of generosity in naturalistic settings in order to understand better the causal social mechanisms that generate and obstruct generosity.

While the Science of Generosity is grounded in the scientific research of scholars in various academic disciplines, the initiative aims to reach beyond scientific and academic culture to share resources and research with corporate, civic, religious, and political leaders; non‐profit and non‐governmental organizations, philanthropic foundations, and policy centers; and the general public. The ultimate aim of the communications effort is to foster sustained general reflection on the value our society places on generosity, voluntary financial giving, altruism, informal helping, relational self‐giving and other generosity‐related practices.

Of course, generosity has been studied in one form or other for many years, but those studies have usually come from different and often disconnected disciplines and focused on various terms, such as philanthropy, volunteerism and altruism. An economist studying the effects of government assistance on charity fundraising, for instance, might never run across a relevant psychological study of why people give or not to charities.

The most effective scientific inquiry requires a coherent field of study where a community of scholars can share important questions, problems, developments and approaches; so the Science of Generosity initiative aims to bring together diverse approaches in order to create a field for the study of generosity in all its forms.

Whether you're a medical sociologist interested in organ donation, an anthropologist studying gift-giving practices, or a philanthropic professional trying to understand how people choose organizations to support, we hope you'll find at least some clues for further inquiry in these pages.