We spoke to people living in the five highest-ranking countries to find out what motivates them to donate their time and money, and how it affects the society there.

It seems that lending a helping hand to a stranger can be more than just a good deed.

In fact, according to research consulting company Gallup, a culture’s willingness to help others is a strong indicator of positive economic factors, including GDP and long-term unemployment, as well as multiple other benefits like encouraging greater overall wellbeing.

To find out more, Gallup conducted surveys over more than 145,000 people across more than 140 countries, asking residents if they had recently donated money to a charity, volunteered for an organisation or helped a stranger in need. The encouraging results, collected in the 2016 Global Civic Engagement Report, were then projected to include the whole world – currently at 7.4 billion people – and found that in a given month, 1.4 billion people donate money to charity, almost 1 billion volunteer and 2.2 billion help strangers.

Each country’s individual score varied widely, however, with residents of certain countries significantly more likely to engage in helping across all measures. We spoke to people living in the five highest-ranking countries to find out what motivates them to donate their time and money, and how it affects society there.

A majority of residents in this small southeast Asian country answered “yes” to each of the questions about giving, resulting in by far the highest country score in the survey.

A strong Buddhist tradition informs much of the generosity here. Dr Hninzi Thet, originally from Yangon, grew up with a Catholic Goanese father and a Buddhist Burmese mother, and explained how the concept of karma in Theravada Buddhism, the school of Buddhism most prominent in Southeast Asia, plays a role.

“Any good deed [Buddhists] do will be shored up for their next incarnation and they will have a better life,” she said. “For instance, on a child's birthday they offer a meal to monks, who depend on the public to feed them. [This action] will earn merit for them.”

Hninzi Thet did say that donations of food and money have mostly only gone to monks and monasteries. “Only recently has there been an effort to start donating to orphanages and such in an organised effort,” she said, especially as the Burmese diaspora has brought more exposure to Western ideas of giving. 

As political stability and general elections have come to the country in recent years, the number of foreigners moving to Burma has increased. In addition to their number one giving ranking, Burma also was recently named the world’s friendliest country in the InterNations Expat Insider 2015 survey, with more than 96% of respondents positively rating their affability toward foreigners.

The United States
Compared to Burma, Hninzi Thet, who now lives in Baltimore, has noticed there’s less of a religious basis to giving in the US, ranked second on the Gallup list.

“There is less of a ROI [Return On Investment] attitude about it,” she said. “What I now admire about US giving is the pay-it-forward model, which is more in line with a civic sense.”

Giving in US culture varies in type, depending on if the area is rural, suburban or urban. Naomi Hattaway, originally from Nebraska and founder of the I Am Triangle international cultural group for people who have lived abroad, has experienced each of them. “There are so many NGOs and non-profits in the [Washington] DC Metro, but as you spread to farther suburbs of the area, I would often hear people say that they had no idea how to volunteer, how to get involved or where to engage,” she said.

But in the tiny town of Lucketts in Virginia, she found that “the spirit of giving, philanthropy and charitable acts was something that almost seemed mandatory for most residents. When someone would share a need, the residents would jump to help. During fundraising efforts, everyone pitched in without a thought.”

This is a trait that some feel has been passed down for generations. “On both sides, my grandparents gave and gave and gave. They never bragged about it but they did tell me the stories, like hosting food and soup lines for many years through the Great Depression and both WWI and WWII,” said Zoe Helene, who lives in Massachusetts. “I think they wanted me to know that compassion for others was essential to character and that people need to take care of each other, otherwise civilization falls apart.”

While those originally from this relatively wealthy country often feel they can and should be doing more, expat residents are more effusive in their praise. “As an Aussie living in America, I find the generosity of the US extraordinary,” said comedian Jim Dailakis, originally from Perth. Living in New York City during 9/11, I witnessed overwhelming kindness and generosity. Personally, it didn’t surprise me. I find New Yorkers to be some of the friendliest people in the world.”

Making sure everyone has an equal chance to succeed – what locals call giving everyone “a fair go” – is a core part of Australian culture.

“In other words, the chance to succeed on the same terms, without disadvantage, as others,” said Erik Stuebe, general manager of the InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto and originally from a small town in New South Wales.

“As a young country, an island continent and with a small population, we are very proud of our ability to punch above our weight in most areas of national endeavour. There is great respect for someone who succeeds while remaining humble and genuine, connected to their roots and supportive of others in their efforts.”

Melbourne in particular has a strong community spirit, and often holds events that contribute millions to local and worldwide causes. Some even go global, like the Movember Foundation, which started in the city in 2003 and now encourages men from all over the world to grow moustaches in November to encourage donations to men’s health.

Crisis also brings out extreme generosity in Australians. “When the tsunami hit in Indonesia in 2004, Australians donated $42 million,” Dailakis said. “Bear in mind the population of the country at the time was probably no more than 20 million.”

Again in 2009, when bushfires caused the loss of many lives and homes, locals stepped up. “Melbournians overwhelmed the system with donations of time, money, clothes, offers of shelter and messages of support,” Stuebe said. “I think Australians give whatever is needed, generously and to the limit of their ability.”

Australians are particularly proud of the social trust and safety net that is protected by law, with strict gun laws, generous unemployment benefits and good healthcare leaving residents feeling secure. That doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy a good ribbing of their fellow citizens – Australians lean into self-deprecating and irreverent humour, and often have to assure outsiders that teasing is a sign of affection.

New Zealand
As residents of a small island nation and one that has historically been mostly rural, Kiwis have a long tradition of taking care of their neighbours.

“There is a feeling sometimes that everyone knows each other or has ‘two degrees of separation’, so there is a duty to look out for each other,” said Katherine Shanahan, originally from Wellington who works at travel site GoEuro.co.uk. “Perhaps the strong sense of community is also a reason why the country appears to have this charitable trait."

Wellington hosts initiatives like The Free Store, where restaurants and bakeries donate food that wasn’t sold for the day, and people can take food that they might not otherwise be able to afford. In December, 18 locations across New Zealand will play host to the Great Kids Can Santa Run, a 2 or 3km run where every participant dresses up in a Santa suit to benefit local children affected by poverty.

The Christchurch earthquake in 2011, which killed hundreds and injured thousands, also revitalised the nation’s giving spirit.

“When I visited Christchurch five years after the earthquake, it was evident that the city was still finding it hard to get back on its feet. I was surprised to come across these ‘All Right?’ billboards,” said Shanahan. “I thought it was an interesting advertisement that was simple and sincere. Not trying to sell you anything but to just remind people to give each other a helping hand every now and then.”

Those who live in New Zealand can also take plenty of time to enjoy the country’s natural beauty. As an island nation with a relatively small population, it’s easy to find and get to empty beaches, as no part of the country is more than 130km from the ocean.

Sri Lanka
Similar to Burma, giving in Sri Lanka is strongly informed by religion. “Most Sri Lankans are Buddhist and Hindus, and both religions endorse charity and sharing,” said Mahinthan So, who lives in the capital Colombo.

A willingness to help is particularly evident in the southernmost city of Matara. “There is a saying in Sri Lanka, that says ‘No matter where you go in the island, in case of a need, you will always find a fellow from Matara and they'll definitely be happy to help,’” said Supun Budhajeewa, from Matara himself. “We have that feeling of belonging deep inside us. I think that sums us up.”

A further breakdown of how countries give, per the study

Most likely to Donate money
New Zealand

Most Likely to Volunteer
Sri Lanka
United States 

Most Likely to Help a Stranger
United States 

From blood donation to school charity socials, there are always events in Matara and beyond that encourage benevolence. Many city-wide organizations and neighbourhoods often conduct dansel (large-scale free food stalls) during occasions like special Poya days, monthly state holidays during the full moon. Holidays are also a popular time for shramadhanas, or donating labour, such as public-road cleanups, hospital volunteering and building houses for the homeless.

Along with helpful and smiling residents, Sri Lanka is also known for its diverse food. Influenced by the Portuguese, Dutch, British, Indian and Persian traders, dishes are often aromatic and full of spices, usually centred around rice and curry. Hoppers, pancakes made of egg, honey and milk, are another popular food, and the island also is known worldwide for its Ceylon tea, famous for its full body and citrus aroma.

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