Every(Re-)Action | New Report from Women’s Philanthropy Institute Reveals Changes to Couples’ Charitable Giving Decisions

April 2, 2021  |  Grace Duginski

A new report published in March by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, part of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), reveals new data for the first time in 15 years about gender breakdowns in giving decisions among couples.

The primary question posed by the report was, “Who decides about charitable giving in households?” WPI set that question against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, which drove many women out of the paid workforce and into positions of unpaid care labor after years of increases in paid workforce participation.

Most study respondents were classified as heterosexual couples. A total of 3,499 respondents were surveyed online in mid-May 2020. The report analyzed responses only from those households that included couples, which meant 2,115 respondents total were included in the study. Of those 2,115 coupled respondents, 8.2 percent identified as LGBTQ+, and the remaining 91.8 percent of respondents were heterosexual couples.

Six key highlights of the study’s discoveries included:

1.    Over 60 percent of couples make giving decisions together – and when they don’t decide jointly, women are marginally more likely to act as sole decision-maker.

This is down from 73 percent in 2005. When one partner in the household makes giving decisions, it is slightly more likely to be a woman (15 percent) than a man (12 percent.) In 2005, those figures were 7 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

2.    Charitable giving decisions “appear closest in nature to short-term financial management.” Women are more likely to be the sole decision-maker for both.

Overall, men are more likely to be the sole decider about “larger purchases or longer-term financial management,” such as long-term financial planning and paying taxes, while women are more likely to act as the decision-maker for “day-to-day household expenses and management,” like buying groceries and clothing.

3.    Demographic data like age, parental status, religiosity, and relative education can influence who decides.

Additionally, research has shown that the donation decision-maker’s gender affects the causes that receive their support – “for example, woman-deciding households are more likely to give to health, education, and human services, while man-deciding households are more likely to give to adult recreation.”

4.    “Charitable decision making is related to the average amount households give. On average, man-deciding households give the most, and separately deciding households give the least.”

Interestingly, WPI’s previous research has shown that “single women give greater amounts than single men, holding other factors constant.” It’s possible that age and other demographics influence coupled households’ decision to give less when women are sole decision-makers.

5.    Men are more comfortable than women giving larger gifts without consultation.

This is a new addition to the body of research available. The study found that “couples who decide separately, or where men solely decide, have the highest threshold for giving without consulting their partners[… whereas] couples deciding jointly, or where women solely decide, have much lower thresholds for consultation.” To put a number on it, “the average amount an individual would feel comfortable giving without consulting their partner, by charitable decision-making style” was three times higher for man-deciding households than woman-deciding households.

6.    About 75 percent of households “usually agree on which charitable causes/organizations to give to[…] and how much to give.”

Around 5 percent say that they disagree about which causes to support and how much to give. Interestingly, nearly 20 percent of households say they “wish the other adult in [their] household was more interested in charitable giving.”

Our Take

Given that many households make decisions jointly and separately about giving, it makes sense for nonprofits to develop relationships with supporters and donors both as individuals and as members of a shared household – and to avoid assuming which member of a couple holds decision-making power. You already know that you’d steward donor segments differently, according to their data and interests; what this study reminds us is that it’s also important to avoid treating members of the same household as though they are identical.