Big Ideas Higher Education Non Profit

Why People Give

By Sean Carton \ December 10, 2021

‘Tis the season for giving, right?

Apparently so. According to donor management software company NeonOne, nearly a third (31%) of all giving for the year happens in December, with 12% of all money donated each year occurring in the final three days of the month.

But why do people give? I’m sure that everyone reading this has a theory. People give because it makes them feel good. They give because they feel a connection to the organization they’re giving to. They give because they want the tax break. The usual stuff.

But what’s the research say? And how does that research translate to what you should do on your website or in your marketing to increase donations? To find out, I decided to do some research.

It turns out that there’s a lot of research out there about why people give. A quick search on Google Scholar turned up over 850,000 articles related to “why do people give to charity.” Ummm…yeah. Now I am one of those people who loves to sit all day reading academic research (really!) but I’ve estimated that even if I just spent 5 minutes per article, it’d take me 4,250,000 minutes to wade through it all. Considering that translates to roughly 8 years (without stopping to sleep, eat, or otherwise have a life), I figured that I needed a different approach. So I did what I figured most sane people would do: I ditched Google Scholar and tried a new search strategy.

A TASTE for Charity

It didn’t take me long to find an article by a couple of researchers who’d already done a lot of the work wading through the literature on charitable giving — it was their job, after all — and who applied their knowledge of the domain to a study of the motivations behind why people give money to charity. They felt that even though the literature included a lot of observational studies seeking to deduce donors’ motivations, few if any had actually gone and asked people why they gave to charity and how they decided what charity they were going to give to. The best previous researchers had come up after looking at 500 other papers on the subject (I guess 850,000 was too big a number for them, too) was that 85% of people gave because someone asked them to. What professors Konrath and Handy wanted to know was how people choose what organization they were going to give to and, most importantly, what motivated them to give.

In order to discover the underlying motivations, they launched a survey which asked people to rate 18 statements in 6 different categories. They found that there were five reasons people typically give to charity, all of which handily lend themselves to the acronym TASTE with an additional C indicating why they didn’t give. To create a handy mnemonic with that pesky “C,” they created the phrase “TASTE for Charity:”

  1. Trust: In order to give, people have to trust that the charity they’re giving to is going to use the money wisely.
  2. Altruism: Not surprisingly, people give because they want to help make the world a better place.
  3. Social: People also give because they feel giving will strengthen or enhance social ties. Married couples might give together or someone might give because someone they know has a disease, because their neighbors are giving, or because they have a connection to an organization (eg. they’re an alumnus of an institution).
  4. Taxes: People give because it provides tax benefits. The amount of year-end giving seems to indicate this is a big reason (or at least a partial reason) for a lot of giving in the US.
  5. Egoism: Some people give because they believe it will make them look good in front of people who matter to them.
  6. Financial Constraints: When people don’t give, it’s often because they feel they can’t afford it.

 

 

Source: 5 reasons why people give their money away – plus 1 why they don’t

Digging Deeper

Konrath and Handy’s findings certainly were interesting and definitely seemed to match up pretty closely with at least my intuition about why people give, but they seemed like pretty broad strokes. Would it be possible, I thought, to gain any more insight on what these motivations really meant when it came to actually asking people for money, especially online?

So I bit the bullet, dove into Jstor, and started doing some heavy-duty reading. I decided to focus on the first three motivators: trust, altruism, and social. Looking at the impact of tax policy seemed to be beating a dead horse — it’s pretty clear by the amount of folks who are going to be giving this month that tax incentives motivate giving behavior — and egoism is so closely related to altruism (“altruism” was originally popularized by philosopher Auguste Comte in 1830 as an antonym for “egoism”) that it seemed that looking at one would cover the other.

What I found was pretty fascinating and, I think, will get any fundraiser thinking.

Trust

What does “trust” really mean when it comes down to a relationship between a potential donor and an organization that wants them to give? While this may sound like a simple question, it turns out that the definitions of “trust” tossed around over the years don’t always agree on what the word even means. Sure, there’s the dictionary definition (“belief that someone or something is reliable, good, honest, effective, etc.”), but that doesn’t really give us a lot to go on when it comes to crafting messages that encourage people to give or creating websites or print collateral that engenders trust in potential donors.

Luckily, this issue of defining “trust” also bothered some researchers, who used some pretty complicated computer analysis software to sift through 20 years of journal articles and define what “trust” means between people and organizations, which they published in the Journal of Business Ethics in 2010. In a nutshell, “trust” comes down to this (NOTE: I’m paraphrasing for simplicity):

  1. An expectation;
  2. That an organization;
  3. Will perform a future action;
  4. Which the person considering trusting considers positive;
  5. Consistently given similar situations.

In other words, we trust organizations that do what they say they’re going to do. The article doesn’t really get into how this happens specifically, but it’s pretty clear that “trust” is about outcomes matching promises.

Altruism

If trust is slippery, defining “altruism” is like trying to walk across a marble floor with oiled banana peels strapped to your shoes. In fact, as much as the word “altruism” seems to have a common-sense definition — something like “wanting to do things for other people” — philosophers, economists, and social scientists have been arguing about a more exact definition for decades if not centuries, some even arguing that “altruism” doesn’t exist at all. In the end, some say, doing nice things for others all comes down to doing those things because it makes us feel good, a feeling often referred to as a “warm glow” that may actually extend, at least one study suggests, to actually increasing donors’ physical wellness.

But when it comes to predicting or influencing donor behavior, “altruism” in the “pure” sense of giving in order to increase the effectiveness of a charity turns out not to be one of the best predictors. In the model of “pure,” logical altruism, economic theory would predict that an increase in government funding of a charity from a new tax should actually decrease charitable giving because donors would assume that the new amount of money they were paying in taxes destined for the charity would accomplish the same goal as them giving the money themselves. It turns out, however, that the reality is actually the opposite: a study conducted in 2017 looking at a real-life example of the impact of such a tax found that charitable contributions to the organizations benefiting from the new tax actually stayed the same or went up. While this seems counterintuitive at first, the economists who wrote the paper theorized that donors didn’t get the same “warm glow” from their tax going to the charity as they did when they gave the money themselves. In other words, people don’t give just because they think their money is going to help the charity, but because it makes them feel good. 

But the drive to give might be even deeper than just “it feels good.” In fact, assert researchers in their paper Why do people give? The role of identity in giving, donors are donors because they identify as donors.

Haters gonna hate and donors gonna donate.

Social

Social forces also seem to have a huge influence on why people give. While Konrath and Handy use fairly positive examples of social pressure when discussing their findings about donor motivations — married couples giving as a way of feeling closer to each other, people giving because they have a connection to someone who has a disease, buying Girl Scout Cookies because there’s a Girl Scout at the door — others have found that the social forces that drive giving might be motivated more by their estimates about what other people are giving. As political scientist Leonard Ray observed in a study published back in 1998 specifically examining giving behavior related to hunger and poverty, when deciding whether or not to give to or support a cause “individuals may economize on attention and cognitive energy, reacting to a situation by emulating the responses of others.” In other words, donors who are interested in a cause give when they see others giving because they’re lazy…err…”economizing on attention and cognitive energy.” 

Interestingly, Ray points out that giving behavior is also heavily influenced by potential donors’ perception of the charity’s ability to provide positive outcomes. “The perceived effectiveness of aid in general, or of private aid in particular,” he writes, “strongly influences an individual’s propensity to donate or support aid.” As noted earlier, if people see that the organization is actually going to do what they say they’re going to do, they’re more likely to donate.

But “big picture” concerns about issues such as poverty and hunger aren’t the only reasons people give: sometimes it’s a personal connection that spurs giving. In fact, as Wharton researchers Small and Simonsohn point out in their 2007 paper Friends of Victims: Personal Experience and Prosocial Behavior, the closer someone is to a person suffering from a particular misfortune, the more likely they are to give to causes focused on that misfortune, and, as other research suggests, the closer (either physically or socially) the better. But while the connection with the issue they’re supporting may have been initially driven by their own personal experience, Small and Simonsohn also found that donors’ sympathy and empathy extend to others who are afflicted with the same misfortune. As they write, “closeness with a victim increases sympathy and prosocial behavior toward other victims of that misfortune.” However, as they quickly point out, “no such effect is observed for victims of other misfortunes.” Just because someone’s aware of one disease doesn’t mean they feel badly for all sick people.

Social motivations for behavior can be tricky, however. Knowing more about a particular cause — especially when it comes to knowing more about people supporting that cause — can actually decrease people’s willingness to give, especially when the appeal is being driven by someone talking about their own giving. As researchers from the London School of Business and The Wharton School discovered when they studied bragging and its impact on others’ prosocial behavior, more knowledge isn’t necessarily a good thing. In fact, as it turns out, the more people know about someone’s good deeds, the less likely those good deeds are at inspiring others to similar good behavior, an effect they call “The Braggart’s Dilemma.” “One’s prosocial behavior affects perceptions of altruism,” they found. “People who tell others about their good deeds inform others that they have behaved prosocially but also are perceived as less intrinsically motivated to help others.” But looking bad by over-sharing isn’t the worst part, at least as far as anyone hoping to use social media to drive word of mouth and increase donations. Information perceived as “bragging” can actually work against the cause the braggart is trying to support. “Bragging about prosocial behavior is special,” they found, “because it directly undermines the information that the person is trying to convey.”

So yeah: all those selfies from charity events  you’re posting on Facebook or Instagram may actually be making your friends think less of you and the causes you’re supporting. It might even be, as other research suggests, making your friends less likely to donate by giving them an “out.” Yikes.

And so…why do people give?

The simplest answer is one that was given in the Konrath and Handy article: because someone asked them to. While that might sound like an obvious reason to most of you reading this (and, honestly, to me too), it’s the baseline. If people aren’t asked to give, they probably won’t.

But if we take that answer for a given, we then have to look at what motivates people to give, and that’s a lot more complicated … at least on the surface. While Konrath and Handy point to five different motivations — trust, altruism, social pressure, tax incentives, and egoism — after my somewhat shallow dive into the research on charitable giving it seems as though what they identified aren’t motivations but a mixture of motivations and conditions. “Trust,” for example, isn’t really a motivation. We all have people and organizations we trust, but that trust doesn’t necessarily lead to us throw money at them. Trust is usually a condition that must be met in order for a donor to give, but it doesn’t seem that it’s going to motivate anyone to give in and of itself.

Altruism and, I’d have to add, egoism, do seem like motivations to give. People give because they want to help, although, as we’ve seen, that desire can be modified by conditions such as distance, connection, time, and even whether or not we identify ourselves as “giving” people. And while “altruism” was coined as an antonym for “egoism,” the two seem inextricably linked and possibly even different sides of the same coin. More on that in a moment.

Social forces do seem to be a major motivator of giving behavior, although how one defines those forces may depend on one’s level of cynicism. It seems clear from the research that people give because they see others give and because giving provides them with status and signals their “prosocial” nature. It also appears clear that giving provides a social benefit by strengthening bonds between the giver and the group that they want to be closer to: people give to be able to signal group membership and their commitment to the group. 

Tax incentives, like trust, seem more of a condition for giving rather than a motivation. Sure, people do give at the highest levels near the end of the year in order to reap the tax benefits, but they still are choosing what to support and to what extent. Tax incentives certainly do motivate when people give, but not why.

The real answer to “why people give” seems to come down to one thing: it makes them feel good. This doesn’t mean that donors can’t be motivated by concern or the desire to help create a better world or even because they feel connected to a particular cause due to their own personal experience. All of those are valid reasons, supported by plenty of evidence and an abundance of experience. Admitting it also doesn’t cheapen the gift or the motivations of the giver. But if you look beyond the surface of the motivations for giving, it seems that giving of all types and all motivations always has the side effect of providing a benefit — sometimes tangible (eg. tax savings), sometimes intangible (eg. the “warm glow” or social approval) — to the giver. This doesn’t mean that people don’t care about the organizations and the causes they give to. People do make choices about where their money goes and that choice seems driven by personal values more than anything else. The actual act of giving, whatever the motivation, does seem to come with an expectation of benefits to the giver, and often that benefit is an intangible and hard-to-define emotional reward.

Sean Carton
Chief Strategist
Sean Carton
Chief Strategist

Sean leads our Discover360 engagements, gathering data and research to develop the insights necessary for crafting effective strategies for our clients. He has a perfectly varied background for our higher education and nonprofit partners: He’s served as everything from a dean to an adjunct professor to the co-director of a high school cybersecurity summer camp to the leader of a university 3D printing lab. Sean also has an uncanny talent for creating the perfect meme faster than you can search for one.