The Science of Giving – A Review

The Science of Giving: Experimental Approaches to the Study of Charity, Daniel M. Oppenheimer and Christopher Y. Olivola, Eds, Psychology Press (2011)

The Science of Giving: Experimental Approaches to The Study of Charity, an anthology of essays that explore the reasons that people give to charity as revealed by social science, was created by its editors, Daniel M. Oppenheimer and Christopher

Y. Olivola, because they wondered, as many of us have, why there is such inconsistency in the way people give.

We’ve all noticed the disparities among a number of fairly recent catastrophes that have commanded media attention and a charitable response, such as the terrorist attacks on New York in 2001, the Asian Tsunami of 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the 2010 disasters in Haiti and Pakistan.

The charitable response, and even the media response, was inconsistent across these disasters irrespective of death tolls. Fundraisers across the nonprofit world have wondered just what makes one disaster more attractive to donors than another.

At the same time, in recent years, more and more research has been done on charitable motivations by social scientists, shedding promising light on when, how, and why donors engage in altruistic behavior.

The editors, and individual authors, of The Science of Giving have pulled much of that research together, hoping that it will bring value to fundraisers

as well as spurring more research and questions that might be answered through social science experimentation.

The book is divided into four sections:

  • The Value of Giving explores the value that donors place on and derive from giving to charity. Every gift has a benefit but also a cost to the donor. How can charities increase the benefits and lower the costs?
  • The Impact of Social Factors delves into other social forces that influence our decisions of whether, and how much, to give. The research showcased here reveals how actual or expected thoughts and behaviors of others can impact our own donations. How can charities use this information to strength the social pressure to give, and weaken the barriers to giving?
  • The Role of Emotions examines what drives our emotional responses and how those responses effect our giving decisions. Emotions can both engender giving and thwart it. How can charities develop appeals that elicit pro-giving emotions and help donors resist emotions that hinder rational decisions about giving?
  • Other Important Influences on Charitable Giving explores an eclectic range of topics that seem to be important to how charitable giving works. The themes range from how requests for time differ from requests for money, to some of the common mental shortcuts that people use to simplify their charitable decisions but that really create inefficiencies in their giving. Interventions are suggested for charitable groups to overcome these biases.

What particularly struck me while reading this book, is how easy it is to take one finding and run with it, only to find that there are always caveats to any assumption about human behavior.

For instance, research shows that prosocial spending (contributing to a good cause for instance) does make the giver happier in a way that spending on one’s self does not. Should we therefore “sell” the happiness that giving brings in our campaigns? Maybe not. Sometimes, as one author in the book points out, “presenting people whose charitable behavior is motivated by altruistic impulses with self-interested appeals can be alienating.”

Certainly some research has shown that introducing economic rewards, such as rewarding children for their performance or paying people for their blood donations can undermine and crowd out the intrinsic motivation to do better or to give blood. Would simply advertising the emotional benefits of giving encourage individuals to give more or not? The evidence seems to lean toward the affirmative, but no one really knows yet for sure.

Nevertheless, there were times while reading the book, that I was happy to see a question answered in a pretty straight forward way. For instance, monthly giving seems to work very well for many people. There may be several factors at play here. One is that when people can only give a small amount of money, they tend to discount it and then not give at all. Monthly giving allows them to make small payments that eventually add up over time, thus legitimizing their small amounts. Giving over time also allows more pleasure since each act of giving can be savored individually.

Other factors are that people seem to be able to part with future money more easily than the money they currently possess, plus it seems to help to separate the acts of giving and receiving from one another. One experiment asked students to imagine they had won $120 in a raffle and had decided to give it all away to a charity using a debit card linked to their checking account. They had to decide whether to give the $120 all at once, immediately; give it all at once but a year from now; or give it in monthly increments of $10 per month.

Logically, all of these options are the same: giving $120 to charity. But 61.5% of the students chose to spread the money out over 12 months; only 8.7% wanted to hold onto the money and contribute it later; and 29.8% wanted to give all the money away immediately. Each decision represents a donor weighing the emotional costs and benefits. How they give is more important than the actual total amount of money they give.

In recent years, more and more research has been done on charitable motivations by social scientists, shedding promising light on when, how, and why donors engage in altruistic behavior. The Science of Giving pulls much of that research together. Here is the rest of our review of that book.

The Science of Giving also clarifies the differences between marketing and fundraising. This

is particularly important since fundraisers are often dazzled by market research. That is understandable since there is much more research done on consumer decision making than on charitable giving decisions. But it is important to think through the whole process of consumption vs. charitable giving. One author in The Science of Giving says:

Marketers and fundraisers have many goals in common. For example, they share a desire to attract new customers/donors and retain existing ones. Yet there are key differences between giving and receiving that can make this a particularly large challenge for charities. When a consumer acquires a material good, such as a new MP3 player, this is just the first step in a long process. The consumer interacts with the MP3 player over a period of time and derives enjoyment anytime that he uses it. In contrast, often when a donor gives to charity, that act is the end of the experience. Yet more can be done to make giving a more vivid and rewarding experience.

The challenge for fundraisers and nonprofits is just how to make giving a self-rewarding feedback loop, similar to purchasing a more tangible product that keeps on giving. Not surprisingly, it seems that all roads, even through the social scientist’s lab, lead to deepening relationships with donors in every way possible.

The Science of Giving is not an easy book to read, especially if you are not into statistics and the scientific method. Fortunately, all of the authors represented in the book do a good job of explaining clearly what the results of their experiments may mean. They also use their findings to suggest specific actions charities might take to modify the behavior of donors.

The Science of Giving is full of information that may help a fundraiser make better decisions about how to approach donors. Plus, it does bring together a lot of research that I, for one, have only seen in bits and pieces. There are many terms that I know about, but that are more fully explained here…such as the “identifiable victim” and “psychic numbing.” The book is a fine reference for the science of charitable giving as it stands today.

I can see a diligent fundraiser unpacking the various experiments and findings to come up with innovative approaches to their donors. I suggest reading the book slowly and carefully. and with a marker. My copy is already full of notes and underlinings. The Science of Giving, if approached with patience, will yield many insights that can be applied to any organization’s fundraising approach.