Behavior and Charitable Giving

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n 2014, American donors gave $258.51 billion to charitable organizations, accounting for more than 70% of all philanthropic dollars in the U.S. (Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy 2015). While the scale of this generosity is significant, research suggests that individuals may be giving in ways that don’t align with their true preferences or intentions. In one study, for instance, 85% of people surveyed cited nonprofit performance as an important criterion for their donations, yet only 3% actually used relative performance data to choose which charity to support (Camber Collective 2010). In a similar vein, the most important societal problems donors name when prompted are often unrelated to the causes they actively support (Chicago Community Trust 2015).

Why might people give in ways that seem contrary to their interests?

A close look at the specific situations in which people make charitable decisions reveals a number of factors that can bias, hinder, or encourage outcomes. For example, donations may actually signal loyalty to friends or neighbors, rather than support for social causes. In some cases, people who want to engage may end up not giving to charity because they aren’t sure how to choose between organizations, or because they simply forget to follow-through. Insights from behavioral science can help explain how people currently make charitable decisions and inform new ways to reduce biases or remove barriers to action. Charitable dollars could then be better allocated, with critical resources directed toward the most urgent issues and effective solutions. Further, aligning individual preferences and donations could increase the total level of giving.

With support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, ideas42 is seeking out new ways to apply a behavioral lens to charitable giving. This work builds on a growing body of research on charitable giving, summarized here to highlight experimental evidence, theoretical frameworks, and empirical data on what drives decisions to give, who gives, and at what levels. Section one covers experimental studies, with each subsection highlighting one factor that encourages or deters charitable giving. Summaries of relevant studies are tagged with the method(s) of donor outreach employed (e.g., direct mail or phone solicitation) and the outcome(s) impacted by the experimental manipulation (e.g., donation frequency or amount). Further reading is suggested for those interested in specific topics.

Most studies in section one explore decisions to support particular organizations chosen in advance by researchers and presented to donors in isolation. Indeed, charitable solicitations often come directly from individual nonprofits and do not prompt donors to consider alternatives or change their general giving patterns. We did not find many field-based, experimental studies on the factors that encourage people to choose thoughtfully among charities or to plan ahead to give. However, section two highlights important theoretical and lab research on how donors may approach these wider giving topics. Papers are grouped into three subsections: broad overviews, research on the relationship between emotion and giving, and studies on information and choice in giving. ideas42’s current work seeks to add to this body of knowledge by designing and field-testing interventions that encourage deliberate choice and advance planning for charitable behavior.

The third and final section of this review catalogues major surveys on charitable giving. These data paint the clearest picture of national trends in giving, in addition to providing detailed information about particular demographic groups and vehicles for giving.

Click on the full report below to read more.