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European Research Network on Philanthropy
Introduction on Giving Research in Italy

Lucia Boccacin and Linda Lombi[1]

‘What drives people to help others? What are the underlying motivations for altruistic behaviour? Do transactions of this nature have a mainly economic value or do aspects of generosity and the absence of exploitation prevail?’ (Parker, 1981, p. 30).

Long the focus of sociological thought regarding the prosocial aspect of donation behaviour, these questions continue to guide empirical research on the topic. A necessary step towards a response would seem to be a discussion of some of the symbolic codes that underlie the act of giving. These regard altruism/the gift, trust and solidarity (Boccacin, 2005). The altruistic dimension is critical to understanding the phenomenon of donations and its social dimension. Altruism, in fact, seen as a concern for others that becomes the principle of action (Bulmer, 1986), implies an intentional behaviour that has the improved welfare of other as its objective, without personal interests or expectations of rewards (Eisenberg, 1982).

Sociological theory has repeatedly clarified the multidimensionality of altruism at a social level (Anheier, Rossi & Boccacin, 2008). A lowest common denominator emerges from among the various interpretations and meanings of the concept and its practice – a person’s awareness of the existence of a need and the voluntary and intentional desire which stimulates altruistic behaviour and an act of donation in order to change this situation of distress and difficulty. The social implications of this behaviour which emerge through this dynamic were clearly identified by Titmuss almost fifty years ago and are still valid today: ‘…the grant, or the gift of unilateral transfer – whether it takes the form of cash, time, energy, satisfaction, blood or even life itself – is the distinguishing mark of the social…’ (Titmuss, 1968, p. 22). At the end of his famous study on blood donation, he writes ‘Freedom from disability is inseparable from altruism’ (Titmuss, 1970, p. 246). Altruistic and donative behaviour is further characterized by its objective relational weight, because the self-sacrificing action, as such, cannot be disinterested in the condition of others. (Donati, 2011).

A second symbolic code underlying giving, in addition to the altruistic-donative aspect of donations, is the understanding of trust as a fundamental and qualifying trait of social ties. This trust implies a reliability on a person or system in connection with a particular set of results or events (Giddens, 1990). The altruistic, donative and trust momentum implicit in donations is embodied in the symbolic code of solidarity (Donati, 2003), understood in particular as a propensity towards helping others.

The term solidarity, etymologically, identifies the existence of a solid bond: it involves the acceptance of a moral commitment, a ‘concrete’ responsibility which refers to a sense of belonging to the same human community. The concept of solidarity implies joint action and, consequently, the refusal of individual solutions, both in free rider form as well as more simply as a rejection of the individual dimension as exclusive (Evers-Laville, 2004). It is related to that of subsidiarity, which allows a dynamic relational that respects and enriches the different social subjectivities (Boccacin, 2014).

In summary, altruism, trust and solidarity are the symbolic and cultural roots that give rise to the specific and tangible action of cash donations. It is through these observable specific and tangible actions that we can also detect traces of intangible and symbolic elements critical to the subjective and inter-subjective processes which affect the actions of the donor.

The sources[2]

Donation and succession data from ISTAT (Italian National Statistics Institute) 2000 to 2009 ( provided the basis for the Italian scenario, but no official nor specific national survey currently exists that could outline the overall picture. Similarly, data relating to income from charity lotteries are not available and are therefore not discussed in this report.

The data presented in this report are therefore derived from the following sources:

    1. The ISTAT 2011 census of industry, public and non-profit institutions: a survey conducted to provide information concerning the main characteristics of enterprises, non-profit organisations and public institutions. The census date of reference was 31 December 2011. Specifically, data on donations and bequests are included in the census of a total of 301,191 non-profit organisations (see ISTAT, 2014).
    2. ‘Italian Solidarity’: an annual survey conducted with CAPI (Computer-Assisted Personal Interviewing) methods and edited by the Doxa Research Institute. The survey investigates the behaviour of Italians relative to charitable donations. The data referred to in this report relate to the year 2012. The sample consisted of 1 000 persons representative of the population over 15 years of age and identified through a three-stage stratified sampling process (Doxa, 2013).
    3. ‘The social commitment of companies in Italy’: a study conducted biennially by SWG [Italian market research group] for the Osservatorio Socialis di Errepi Comunicazione through online interviews (CAWI – Computer Assisted Web Interviewing). The scope of the references is made up of companies with over 100 employees. The sample representative of this range is based on the parameters ‘field of membership’ and ‘macro area’. The results for the years 2011 (sample consisting of 823 companies) and 2013 (400 companies) (Osservatorio Socialis, 2012, 2014) were examined for this report.
    4. Research on donations by the Osservatorio Socialis in 2014 in partnership with Ixè Ltd., a quantitative survey involving 1 000 subjects representative of the Italian adult population and conducted with CATI (Computer-Assisted Telephone Interviewing) and CAMI (Computer-Assisted Mobile Interviews) methods (Osservatorio Socialis, 2014b).
    5. The ACRI Report (Association of Foundations and Savings Banks) containing information on 88 banking foundations. For economic and financial management data, budgets for the year ending December 31, 2013 were examined (Acre, 2014).
    6. Data collected by the Italian Taxation and Revenue Office and released by the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy on the donation of the so-called ‘five thousandth’ for the year 2012.

Overview of Giving in Italy

While in Italy there is no official national survey to precisely measure the overall flow of donations in any recent year such that the total amount donated and the distribution by geographic area may be calculated, an analysis of the different sources consulted in this report allows an estimation of the phenomenon and the outlining of several trends.

The data show, in fact, some convergences. More women and members of the older population group donate than of the youngest group (although men donate higher amounts). The north of Italy registers more donations, but the highest total amount donated in a geographical area is recorded in the centre of Italy, as evidenced by both the data on individual donations as well as those relating to revenue for charitable institutions of the third sector. However, it is currently difficult to estimate the amount per capita of individual donations due to the differences in the financial flows examined. Vita, in the article already mentioned, estimated the annual flow of donations in Italy to be € 11.5 billion. The sum is derived from the sum of individual donations (€ 4.6 billion), offers to parishes (€ 2.6 billion) and other private donations (€ 4.4 billion). The total figure, recalculated on the basis of inflation rates for the last three years, may be currently estimated at € 12 billion (Aa. Vv., 2015). However, it is worth pointing out that this is an estimate and is not supported by any single official survey. As we are unable to distinguish the different sources of ‘other private donors’, we cannot include the figure in the overall number of Giving in Italy (€ 9.1 billion). Giving in Italy is thus based on giving by individuals (€ 7.2 billion), foundations of banking origin (€ 0.9 billion) and giving by corporations (€ 1.0 billion).

Another important element that emerges from the analysis is the presence of a greater propensity to donate by persons engaged in voluntary activities and in solidarity actions carried out in the religious sphere. This, as noted by other researchers (Principles, Jensen & Lamura, 2014; Boccacin, Rossi & Bramanti, 2011), demonstrates how generosity is expressed in concrete actions of an altruistic nature, aimed at providing support not only on the economic front, but also on the social and relational ones. The ‘virtuous cycle of giving’, then, begins by which those engaged in solidarity activities donate economically and support different prosocial activities in various ways, thus contributing actively to the development of a civil culture (Donati & Colozzi, 2004).


[1] Department of Sociology, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore Milano, Milan

[2] The authors wish to thank Alice Zanchettin for the valuable support offered during the data retrieval and statistical information.


Boccacin, L. & Lombi, L. (2017) Research on Giving in Italy. In: Hoolwerf, L.K. & Schuyt, Th.N.M. (eds) Giving in Europe. The state of research on giving in 20 European countries. Amsterdam: Lenthe Publishers.

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