Una Okonkwo Osili has been an immigrant twice. She is the daughter of an American mother and a Nigerian father who met as students at Cornell University. When she was six months old, the family moved from New York to Enugu, Nigeria, where she grew up among thousands of other immigrants looking for jobs in the Nigerian Oil Boom in the 1970s. When she was 15 she came back to America, where she got her BA at Harvard, and then got her Masters and PhD in economics from Northwestern University. Again she rode a wave of immigration as America’s foreign born population increased 57 percent, to 31.1 million.
Today Dr. Osili is the Director of Research at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. She is the go-to guy in academia for analysis of how immigrants in America give, or don’t give, to charities and friends. Like most people she learned about giving first from her own parents. She says her Nigerian father used to tell her, “If you close your hand, nothing will leave, but nothing will come in.” So she chose to combine her expertise in economics with a personal understanding of what it takes to become a part of a new land.
Her paper Immigrant Assimilation and Charitable Giving provides data to debunk myths about immigrants. Osili’s research shows that, after the first ten years, immigrants to America give to charities at the same rates as native born Americans, and they give more through what she calls “private transfer networks.” In fundraising terms, this means immigrants give the same as native born Americans through formal giving to charities and give more than native born Americans through informal giving to friends and families in need. Formal giving would be donating money to a hospital. Informal giving is giving money and goods to a family member outside your own household (not your own children), such buying medicine for your brother, giving your grandmother a ride to the doctor, or giving your cousin who just had a baby a bag of groceries and a box of diapers.
Using data from the Center on Philanthropy Panel Study (COPPS), Osili learned that:
- Immigrant status does not have a statistically significant impact on the probability of giving or the level of charitable giving.
- Only recent immigrants (who migrated within the past 10 years to the US) are less likely to give. As immigrants gain US experience, their participation and levels of charitable giving become the same as American natives.
- On the other hand, immigrants are 11 percentage points more likely to give private transfers of money to family, friends, and neighbors living outside their own household (not counting their own children or alimony.) Unlike their giving to charities, immigrants with 10-15 years experience in the US continue to have higher incidence and levels of income transfers. So after more than ten years, immigrants give as much as native Americans to formal charities, but also continue to give more in informal giving to help their family, friends, and neighbors.
University fundraisers are already using Osili’s data. Many universities use tailgating parties to cultivate their major donors, leveraging two great incentives for the traditional white male donors: exclusive parking spots and great quantities of adult beverages. However, the schools found they were not attracting their minority alumni from science and engineering to tailgating parties. When they offered scientific lectures by star professors, minority alumni turned out in much higher numbers to the cultivation events.
Americans are, by far, the most generous people in the world. The latest edition of Giving USA shows that Americans gave more than $303 billion to charities in 2009 in the midst of the Great Recession. This is more than the GDP’s of South Africa and Thailand, slightly less than the GDP’s of Argentina and Denmark. We give away a lot of money. But as Dr. Osili says, “Giving back is a part of every culture and every religion.” Her analysis shows that immigrants bring with them the traditions of caring directly for the people closest to them, and quickly learn to give through formal charity channels as well.Photo credit: The Matachines dance and drum group from West Liberty, Iowa, march down the Columbus Junction, Iowa, Main Street at the 2008 Hispanic Culture Festival. Photo from the Columbus Junction Community Economic Center.