Unlocking Greater and Better Giving Through Behavioral Design

Americans donated over $410 billion to charities in 2017. What’s interesting is that the bulk of this money didn’t come from what are often thought of as the usual suspects in giving—large checks from major foundations or wealthy corporations. Rather, 72% of philanthropic dollars came directly from individuals. Contrary to the conception of individual donors as affluent philanthropists, the vast majority of donors are everyday Americans supporting a diverse universe of charitable organizations across the globe.

With more than a million public charities headquartered in the U.S. alone, how do individual donors decide when, where, and how much to give? To answer these questions, ideas42 conducted a survey in which they asked people how much they thought their neighbors should donate to charity. Surprisingly, the average respondent said their peers should give about 6% of their income annually – more than double what people actually donate each year! The implication of this mismatch is clear. Many Americans are likely giving less on average than we ourselves believe we should.

If we can help people be more deliberate and thoughtful about their giving, we could unlock billions of dollars for important causes. What if we could apply a behavioral lens to philanthropy to help Americans be more generous, intentional, and informed in their everyday giving?

Behavioral design lab, ideas42 has released a report, Best of Intentions: Using Behavioral Design to Unlock Charitable Giving, which identifies many of the specific behavioral barriers and biases preventing thoughtful charitable giving behavior, and shares results from tested solutions to help people take a generous, intentional, and informed approach to giving.

The report helps fundraisers think about how better design can help everyday donors fulfill their true altruistic intentions and close the gap between what Americans think they should be giving and what they’re actually giving. ideas42 views these three dimensions as having the potential to optimize giving in the following ways:

  • Generosity: Americans continue to demonstrate an inclination toward altruism, but individually, we don’t always translate these desires into actual donations. By tapping into this spirit of generosity and providing easy and timely ways to give, we can help people increase the amount they donate every year.
  • Intentionality: Giving can be unstructured and done on an ad hoc basis, leaving people unaware of how much (or how little) they give in the course of a year. Additionally, many give simply when asked, and not necessarily to causes that matter most to them. Offering tools that allow people to plan when and where to give can make their philanthropy more purposeful and aligned with their intentions.
  • Informed Giving: The impact of charitable dollars can be difficult for donors to trace and measure. Even for those motivated to find effective charities, seeking information is often prohibitively time-consuming and complex. Features that simplify choice, make comparisons clearer, and provide timely feedback can support donors who want to make the best use of their donations.

Building a better giving environment won’t happen overnight, but with behavioral innovations that make philanthropy more salient, easier to manage, and simpler to navigate—even by degrees— we can amplify the virtuous cycle of giving in the U.S. Unlocking billions of dollars in new and better-targeted giving can help donors fulfill their altruistic intentions and charities obtain the funds they need to further their missions, and ultimately support beneficiaries and critical causes that create wide-ranging public benefits across the country.

Best of Intentions not only provides the groundwork for future efforts — it is also a useful guide right now for practitioners seeking new strategies for improving charitable giving. Applying proven solutions to new contexts can help more Americans follow through on their generous intentions and equip charitable organizations with resources they need to improve lives.

Download the full report here.