Jen Shang of the University of Plymouth on why giving can make you happy

The professor of philanthropic psychology tells Susannah Birkwood that her subject has the potential to transform fundraising by revealing how donors benefit from their generosity

Jen Shang
Jen Shang

It was the threat of losing access to her favourite radio station that first drew Jen Shang to the field of fundraising. The academic, who is now a professor at the University of Plymouth and is often referred to as the world's first philanthropic psychologist, was at that time studying for a Masters degree at Carnegie Mellon University in the US city of Pittsburgh.

"I lived off scholarships and I couldn't afford much entertainment, so I listened to public radio all the time," she says. "One station that was on 24/7 was my company and my life. Then one day the fundraising drives started. People were saying: 'Give us money or we'll go off the air next week.'"

To Shang, this seemed illogical. Why would new donors believe the station would close without their support if it had managed to survive without it thus far? And why would existing donors be excited by the prospect of saving the station from an inevitable death?

Shang phoned the station and made her point. It would be better, she argued, if you told people that the station was the best source of local music around. "I'm a student studying cognitive computational modelling," she added – then she hung up.

The station took heed: the next day, the message had changed. "They didn't say they were going to die," she says. "I thought: this is an area where I can make a difference."

Originally from China, Shang first arrived in the US in 2000, fresh from completing a psychology degree in her native Beijing. In China, she says, many people provide their families with substantial financial support, but there is less of a culture of philanthropy as we know it in the west. The Mandarin for philanthropy is "ci shan", which means "kind and caring", she says; her own definition of the concept is "an act of love that is practised in a way that draws wisdom from all possible sources".

Today, Shang, a Christian, feels detached from Chinese philanthropy, having not been back to mainland China in a decade. Instead, she has focused her studies on western philanthropy, embarking first on a Masters in judgement and decision-making at the University of Pennsylvania, then on a PhD in Philanthropic Studies at Indiana University in 2005.

She focused her PhD research dissertation on how public radio donors give to public stations and carved out a niche for herself in the field of philanthropic psychology. She explains that whereas a psychologist might be interested only in why people give, a philanthropic psychologist would ask how a donor's motivation for giving affects society and the life of that person. She began to study questions such as what donors' motivation says about their lives, what it says about society and what that says about their beneficiaries.

It was while she was doing the first PhD in this field that Shang realised she wanted to spend her life trying to find the answer. "And it was then that I began to understand that philanthropy is a way for people to experience human love," she says.

It was also at this point that Shang met the fundraising academic Adrian Sargeant, who would later become her husband. Sargeant began working as a professor of fundraising at Indiana University in 2006 and the pair started to collaborate on research, together building up what has become a formidable reputation in the field of fundraising research. They married in 2008, had two children and, four years later, moved to the UK, from where Sargeant comes.

So what is it like to conduct world-class fundraising research with your husband? "Intense," she says. "We're the world's only academics doing this, so we understand each other in ways that no one else can, and we fight in ways that no one else can. It's hard sometimes because you always want the person you love to agree with you, so when they keep fighting you because it's right intellectually, you just want to kill them!"

She laughs as she says that her favourite quote about marriage is taken from a Harvard University study: "We've never thought of divorce, but murder? Yes!"

Shang and Sargeant have published several research papers together, but the Great Fundraising Report, produced last year for the consultancy Revolutionise, was one of the most challenging, according to Shang. "We were constantly fighting about how to write it," she recalls. But because Sargeant frequently travels the world to analyse fundraising trends overseas, she says, he has a macro viewpoint that complements her more micro psychologist approach.

Experimental lab

After a year spent teaching philanthropic psychology at the University of Bristol, Shang moved in 2013 to Plymouth University. In 2014, she and Sargeant opened the Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy, a research centre based at the university that Shang says they hope will grow the field of philanthropy by generating new fundraising concepts and practices.

They plan to launch the world's first experimental lab for philanthropic psychology at the centre next year. They are trying to recruit volunteers who match the typical donor demographic and are willing to take part in research into their giving behaviour over the course of their lives – and, in the case of legacy gifts, beyond. "We are two months into a 50-year project," she says. "We hope to build a pool of thousands of people."

For the charity sector, says Shang, one of the most useful things to come out of this research will be evidence to show the positive impact of giving on donors. "I see huge potential there," she says. "The change that giving makes to people's feelings about life is not being studied enough. There's a lot of research on why people give, but there's not enough literature on what the giving does to the donor."

Shang believes fundraisers could use this knowledge to motivate themselves. Rather than drawing all their motivation from the difference the money they raise makes to beneficiaries, she argues, they could also focus on the benefits to donors. She says: "Really good fundraisers already understand that people who give to charity have higher moral ideals, experience love more and are happier – but because the experiments are not being carried out, this has not been supported by evidence. If we could prove this, it would make fundraisers feel better about their jobs."

Deep knowledge

She thinks philanthropic psychology has great potential. "I see fundraisers needing it and I see philanthropists needing it," she says. "When we interview people from both groups, I get the sense that we're providing the first kind of deep knowledge in this domain: 'nobody asked me that before', people say. There is just so much more knowledge they can tap into."

Consequently, she says, the most important thing she is doing now is training a competent group of dedicated PhD students. This, along with writing a book on philanthropy psychology and bringing up her two children, aged four and six, should keep Shang busy for the foreseeable future.

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