Generosity In Practice: Understanding Charitable Giving Research

GlobalGiving reviewed a decade of charitable giving research to find out how to spark donor generosity. Here’s what we learned, and how it could inform your fundraising tactics.
GlobalGiving Foundation


The Big Question

How can the nonprofit sector encourage donors to engage in habitual patterns of giving, in a way that creates a continuous cycle of generosity?

What We Tested

As members of the Charitable Giving Consortium (GlobalGiving, DonorsChoose, Kiva, and Michael Norton from Harvard Business School), we sought to increase our understanding of altruism and habit formation, in order to improve nonprofit practice and increase donations for public good.

Why It Matters

Individual giving is largely driven by the impulse to be generous and good. Yet, most donors only give one time to a charity, suggesting a disconnect between giving impulses and habit—between intent and action. This so-called “generosity gap” represents an unrealized potential for social good. Behavioral science research can help us understand how people form a habit of generosity, and the steps nonprofits can take to turn single acts of generosity into an enduring practice of giving which, in turn, brings us closer to closing the generosity gap.

Our Method

We conducted a suite of scientific experiments and an extensive literature review of behavioral science, economics, social psychology, and marketing research from the past decade (2008 – 2018). The published literature review, authored by behavioral and development economist Rachel Binder-Hathaway, refers to approximately 150 research papers and impact evaluations, including evaluations performed by the consortium members, and was informed by more than 500 additional papers.

The Ultimate Outcome

The research explores three topical areas:

  1. Understanding behavioral levers of donor engagement and retention;
  2. Moving beyond the first donation by creating a habit of ongoing giving, with a particular focus on the newly explored concept of pseudo-set effects, and;
  3. Minimizing crowding-out effects within and across charities, dubbed consortium effects.

We identified 11 determinants as essential to donor engagement and retention, as well as messaging and framing tools that prompt habitual giving. The behavioral principles of philanthropy included are: (1) social norms; (2) salience and simplicity; (3) intertemporal choice; (4) commitment devices, reminders, and planning prompts; (5) identifiability effects; (6) incentives; (7) partitioning effects; (8) identity primes; (9) framing effects and willingness to give; (10) emotion and morality; (11) set completion effects, including pseudo-set frames.

Make It Yours

Read our summaries of the three categories of research to see which ideas might be most relevant for you.

  1. Donor engagement and retention tips
  2. The effects of messaging and framing on charitable giving
  3. The effects of pseudo-set framing on charitable giving

What research findings can you test in your work?

Get a copy of the Generosity Literature Review delivered to your inbox.