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10 Reasons Why People Give (and 5 Reasons They Don't)
10 Reasons Why People Give (and 5 Reasons They Don't)

Want to increase giving? Research on generosity and behavioral economics can provide insights on how donors think

By Sandra Gurvis


Illustrations by Ralph Voltz

1. Giving is like eating chocolate cake

Generosity lights up the same part of your brain that responds to food and sex: Neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health demonstrated this in a study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Similar results came from scientists at Stanford and Harvard universities. The fMRI scans showed that kindness is like "psychological chocolate," as Stanford researcher Jamil Zaki has put it: When study participants acted equitably, they activated their brain's orbitofrontal cortex, which assesses rewards.

Generosity has been found to reduce stress, increase longevity, and produce happiness hormones like dopamine. When subjects helped others, they felt more energetic and stronger and even experienced a sense of euphoria, or "helper's high," according to volunteerism expert and author Allan Luks, who analyzed the effects of volunteering on some 3,000 men and women.

Gift size is irrelevant, researchers at the University of British Columbia and the Harvard Business School found. In a study, participants received $5 or $20 and were instructed to either spend the money on themselves or spend it on others. Those who spent on others said they were happier at the end of the day than those who didn't.

2. It's an innate trait

Most of us develop a sense of philanthropy by early childhood. In a University of British Columbia study, toddlers who gave their treats to a puppet exhibited happier expressions than when receiving a treat.

Michael Price, associate professor of economics at Georgia State University, and John List, principal investigator at the Science of Philanthropy Initiative at the University of Chicago, are studying generosity among young children.

"We found that moral reference points—moral costs—are important in determining our willingness to share with others," Price explains. "The basic intuition is that we have a desire to avoid acts that are deemed selfish." Such feelings "influence patterns of sharing by children, suggesting that [acts of charity] may be an innate trait."
People cheering

3. It reinforces our self-perception—and makes us feel like big shots

Giving not only makes us feel good; it also makes us look good—and we're all concerned with what people think about us. Giving back can make you seem more responsible. That explains why recognition efforts—whether it's a thank you note, a plaque, or a donor list—are so effective. It shows people that you've contributed to a project.

"It kind of loops back to our egos and the need to feel important," says financial consultant Theresa Lloyd, co-author of Richer Lives: Why Rich People Give.

Reminding donors of previous gifts can also increase giving, according to "Identity in Charitable Giving," a research paper by Judd B. Kessler and Katherine L. Milkman of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. This effect is larger among individuals who historically have been regular donors, Kessler and Milkman write, noting that consistent behavior solidifies our identity.

People choose to see themselves in certain ways, and they reinforce that identity through ties to social groups, experiences, and communities—such as their alma mater. "There are norms or prescriptions associated with one's identity or ‘sense of self,'" Kessler and Milkman write. "People will adjust their behavior to more closely mirror these prescriptions, especially when reminded of their identity."

4. Givers are repaying a gift

If someone gives you a gift, you feel compelled to give one as well. Giving potential donors everything from tote bags to T-shirts can inspire a gift in return.

"That doesn't necessarily mean that the donor will reciprocate right away," List says. He recommends giving a small but appropriate gift, waiting three months, then making an ask. This way, he says, recipients can enjoy the gift and develop a deeper sense of gratitude and identity with the organization.

Another option? Get creative. Instead of sending out obvious gifts, such as address labels, tie gifts to your mission and connect donors with the end result of their gift, writes Caryn Stein, vice president of communications and content for Network for Good, on the organization's Nonprofit Marketing Blog. "This could mean an exclusive tour of your facilities, a personalized note from a beneficiary, or a custom video from your volunteers," she writes. "A gift exchange doesn't need to be expensive—it just needs to be sincere."
Peer pressure

5. Peer pressure!

It's hard to say no when someone applies pressure. A 2009 research paper by Jonathan Meer of Stanford University and Harvey S. Rosen of Princeton University found that "individuals behave differently when their behavior is more observable." Approaching someone in person can increase social pressure, which increases participation.

Jen Shang, philanthropic psychologist and director of research at the U.K.'s University of Plymouth Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy, is conducting a study that analyzes the increase in cash donations and emotional involvement in "horizontal" relationships, such as spouses and siblings, versus "vertical" relationships such as parents and children. Early findings suggest people, when asked to give in the presence of someone with whom they're in a horizontal relationship, give twice as much as their vertical counterparts, Shang says. The reason? Horizontal relationships are age-mates and peers, and therefore subject to peer pressure.

People also take cues from others, waiting to see how other people act before taking the plunge themselves. That's why "the first couple of dollars are the hardest to get," says Jeff Hill, director of advancement for the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Once you reach the 50 percent mark, people see the campaign as potentially successful and become more comfortable about opening their wallet.

6. They connect with a personal story

The more personal a story, the more people respond. Consider the case of Cecil the lion. From 2003–2013, roughly 10,000 lions were killed in Africa. But in 2015, when a hunter killed Cecil—a well-known lion living in a Zimbabwe wildlife sanctuary—it became international news. Late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel encouraged viewers to give to the University of Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), which had tracked Cecil. In 10 days, WildCRU received £547,147.

People react more strongly when a situation is humanized. In behavioral economics, this is known as an "identifiable victim"—someone (even if it's a lion) who makes a story more personal and less abstract. Case in point: In a Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management study, participants were asked to read a story about a financial adviser who defrauded his clients. Half of the stories described the effect on two or three people; the other half focused on dozens of people. Those who read the version focusing on fewer individuals recommended a longer jail sentence for the financial adviser.

From a fundraising standpoint, individual stories inspire donors more effectively than broader stories.

"This is the real strength behind one-day campaigns that leverage social media around a particular cause or crowdfunding for specific projects," says Una Osili, director of research of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. Adds Shang: "Instead of a faceless charity, you are giving to an individual."

7. Religious beliefs

Households belonging to a church, mosque, synagogue, or other house of worship contribute twice as much as those with no religious affiliation, according to The Non-Profit Sector: A Research Handbook. While this may seem to have larger implications for faith-based institutions, "many religious traditions also emphasize philanthropy, which extends to well beyond the church," Lloyd observes. The evidence: 52 percent of households give to both religious and secular causes. They also donate one-third more to secular organizations than the 28 percent that only contribute to secular institutions, the handbook notes.

8. Upbringing and ethnicity

Parents who give are powerful role models for their children. In a study by the Women's Philanthropy Institute at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, children whose parents talk to them about giving were 20 percent more likely to contribute to charity than those whose parents did not discuss it. This was true regardless of the child's sex, family income, age, or race.

White people have traditionally been considered the bulwark of philanthropy, but, according to The Non-Profit Sector: A Research Handbook, in a study done in California, differences in charitable behavior among Caucasians, African-Americans, Latinos, and other groups virtually disappear once income, education, and immigration status are taken into account.

With 30 percent of U.S. college freshmen being the first generation in their family to pursue a higher education—and with younger generations more ethnically and sociologically diverse—understanding what will engage families from Somalia to Appalachia "requires not only market segmentation but knowledge of completely different sets of rules" says Lilly's Osili. Country of origin, for example, can influence what appeals to particular donors. Researchers Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia and Michael Norton of Harvard Business School examined the difference in giving patterns between Canada, one of the world's wealthiest countries, and Uganda, one of the poorest.

Nearly 20 percent of Ugandan participants reported giving in response to a negative event, with 10 percent purchasing medical supplies or services, while none of the giving by Canadians fell into these categories.

The study, however, showed that how people feel about giving is surprisingly constant regardless of where they live: "Spending money on others has a consistent, causal impact on happiness. In contrast to traditional economic thought—which places self-interest as the guiding principle of human motivation—our findings suggest that the reward experienced from helping others may be deeply ingrained in human nature, emerging in diverse cultural and economic contexts."

9. They can afford to give

This isn't exactly shocking, but wealthy households receiving an inheritance were, according to the handbook, more likely to donate twice as much money than those that did not. This is because 1) they had greater income to begin with, and 2) the higher the income, the greater the inheritance. Those who earned their wealth, however, were six times more likely to donate than their trust fund counterparts.

10. Because men and women really are from different planets

Women are not only more likely to give than men; they also give higher amounts. In research conducted by the Women's Philanthropy Institute, single female-headed households were more inclined to give to charity than single male-headed households in every income category. Additionally:

"Women tend to be more empathetic and altruistic," Osili says, while men may frame the donation in terms of self-interest, maintaining the status quo, or seeing program/project as a solid investment. In a study published in the journal Current Biology, men donated "four times more money to an attractive female fundraiser in response to the contribution of another male." Researchers say this "competitive helping" might be a leftover of a once-beneficial evolutionary trait.

Attitudes toward money vary as well. Unlike women, who see wealth as a way to achieve goals, personal freedom, and security, men frame wealth in terms of power, prestige, and achievement. Women, according to a recent survey by the U.S. Trust, are also twice as likely as men to find giving to charity a more satisfying byproduct of wealth.

5 Reasons Alumni Resist Giving

1. Lack of trust. Trust in an institution affects not only the likelihood that alumni will give but also the gift amount, according to a study by Noah Drezner and Maria Anderson-Long at Columbia University's Teachers College. Trust trumped income, race, gender, education level, and even donors' opinions about the worthiness to a cause.

Solution: "Show alumni and students exactly where their money's going, along with full accountability," advises financial consultant Theresa Lloyd, co-author of Richer Lives: Why Rich People Give. This can be anything from tours of a construction site to town hall meetings and other events that reflect progress. "The more people know about a project and are directly involved with it, the more likely they are to donate," says Adrian Sargeant, director of the U.K.'s University of Plymouth Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy.
Office door with names crossed off

2. Revolving development door. This is particularly a problem at smaller colleges, says Jeff Hill, director of advancement for the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, since development staff often have limited career paths. The result? They frequently leave for bigger institutions that offer greater chances for personal advancement. "When they go, so may the relationships with donors and future donors," he says.

Solution: "Practice a team approach and make sure that the development players know all the major donors," Hill advises. Universities across the globe are beginning to recognize the importance of building a robust development team, especially in terms of "creating a strong internal philanthropic culture throughout all levels of the institution," Hartsook's Sargeant says. Along with boosting staff development, loyalty, skills, and tenure, he estimates that additional fundraising training can bring in extra gifts.

3. Misfired marketing. A Donor Loyalty Study from nonprofit software company Abila found that nearly 75 percent of respondents were turned off by poor, vague, dull content. This includes generically worded newsletters, as well as wince-inducing misspelled names and age-inappropriate material, such as soliciting millennials—who aren't yet in their prime earning years—for a large cash gift. Respondents also preferred shorter methods of communication, whether it's a YouTube video or a Facebook post.

Solution: "It's vital to give donors a sense that you are engaging with them personally," says Hill of UNC. He suggests segmenting communications to meet the needs of a particular donor audience. Given the amount of information available today and the ability to analyze marketing data, "it's fairly easy to target the right message to the right person," he says, even if it's something as simple as allowing older donors to mail in a check rather than contribute online. Also consider how much you communicate: The Abila study found that more than 50 percent of donors preferred monthly or quarterly communications, and most donors preferred short, self-contained content. More than half of all donors want at least monthly communication (except millennials, who want to receive content at least twice monthly).
Man holding cash

4. The requests only ask for cash. Although most institutions ask all alumni to give, they may only request money. This can be a fatal mistake, especially for recent grads who may lack the funds and be mired in student debt. Approximately 60 percent of Gen Xers/millennials felt that student debt hampered their ability and willingness to give, according to a paper published by American Student Assistance.

Solution: Encourage volunteerism and participation in events, no strings attached. In the Abila study, nearly 75 percent of those who volunteered—including some 52 percent of millennials—were more likely to give. Getting students involved while they are on campus will keep them engaged and thinking about philanthropy. "You have them for four years," says Una Osili, director of research at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. "During that time you can show them how past donors have made it possible to have a quality education and wealth of opportunity," thus planting the seeds for future giving.

5. Bad timing. Too often, development officers—especially those who are new to the field—hesitate when it comes to the big ask. "They are afraid they will mess it up, even after many lunches and meetings," Hill says.

Solution: Know your audience and understand the dynamics of the relationship. There's likely an unspoken consensus that at some point, the potential large donor will be asked. "Even if they say no, try to get underneath the reason," Hill says. "Letting them know that you're still behind the project, that you can come back in six months or so, can mean all the difference between yes and no."

About the Author Sandra Gurvis

Sandra Gurvis is the author of 16 books and hundreds of magazine articles on topics ranging from travel to education to medicine and more. She lives in Columbus, Ohio.




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