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Viewpoints: Five reasons why we give (and one why we don’t)

Research and polls find a range of motivations for charity, and it’s not just for the tax break.

By Sara Konrath and Femida Handy / For The Conversation

Do you wish you had more money?

Most people do. And even though people work hard to earn their money, many give some of it away, often to help strangers. In fact, 55.5 percent of American households say that they give to charity, and on Giving Tuesday they will be encouraged to continue the practice.

As experts on giving-related topics in our respective disciplines of psychology and economics, we wanted to understand why people choose to spend their money on other people, rather than themselves; that is, what’s behind the urge to donate.

The power of asking: We are not the first to try to figure this out. The Dutch scholars Rene Bekkers and Pamala Wiepking published a paper six years ago that drew from 500 other papers on this topic to identify the key factors that drive giving.

What they found is that for more than 85 percent of charitable donations, people gave because someone asked them to. Yet that doesn’t solve the question of how donors who are approached by many causes choose which ones they will support.

Most people give to causes that affirm important values, including compassion for those in need. Donors are also more likely to give when they think that their donation will make a difference. But donors don’t give only from the heart, Bekkers and Wiepking found. They also consider the costs and benefits of giving, and the benefits to themselves such as feeling good or looking good to others.

But there are very few ways to measure what motivates people to give to charity (or not). While asking thousands of donors why they give for our research, we have rarely encountered anyone who confessed to giving simply because someone asked them to.

Instead, they describe internal triggers. People often say things like they feel bad for people who do not have homes or it makes them feel good to help others.

That’s why we believe it’s best to simply ask donors why they give.

A ‘TASTE’ for charitable giving: In a study detailed in an article soon to be published in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, we recruited 819 Americans who reported that they had given to charity in the past. They filled out a detailed online survey that included 54 statements about many different reasons that people give such as “I donate because I feel compassion toward people in need.” We drew from previous research to develop these statements, which participants rated according to how strongly they agreed with them.

Based on the patterns we observed in these initial responses, we whittled the 54 down to 18 statements in six categories that measured the most common reasons for giving (or not). This is how we came up with our motives to donate scale, which highlights five key motivations for charitable giving and one common barrier.

From most important to least they were: altruism, trust, social, (financial) constraints, egoism and taxes. Because “ATSCET” is hard to remember, we chose the handier acronym TASTE for Charity.

Trust: People are more likely to give to nonprofits that they trust will use their donated money to make a difference.

Altruism: Donors tell us again and again that they find it important to help others in need. This reinforces earlier findings by other scholars like Gil Clary, Mark Snyder and their colleagues that find that the most important reason for volunteering is altruistic concern for others.

Social: Many donors say that they give because their donations matter to someone they know and care about. For example, many married couples often make charitable donation decisions together. People who know someone who has a disease or who has died from one may make a donation to charity that promotes research for that disease. Or people may invite friends to a fundraiser for one of their favorite charities or just directly ask for a contribution; something that millions of Girl Scouts do when they ring their neighbors’ doorbells with their cookie forms in hand.

Taxes: The tax breaks many people get in exchange for their gifts to charity are another motivating factor for giving.

Egoism: Egoism is when people give in order to receive some personal benefit, such as feeling good or looking good to others. Our respondents also cited this motivation.

Financial constraints: In addition to those five motivating factors, we found one reason why people balk at giving to charity: They feel like they can’t afford it.

What we know and what we don’t: So far, we know that people seem to be more motivated by how they can help others when they give, rather than what they can get back.

But we are not yet sure if we would find this same pattern in larger-scale studies. Our participants did not reflect U.S. demographics in terms of gender, age and race or ethnicity. The number of women who took part outnumbered the men, for example, which might have made donors look more altruistic than they would have with gender parity.

So, at this point we don’t know what motivates Americans from all different backgrounds to give. We aim to learn more about that in future studies.

Also, we are multicultural scientists: One of us is a citizen of Canada and Germany while also being a U.S. green card holder, and the other was born in India and is both a U.S. and Canadian citizen. Given our own global perspectives, we don’t expect motivations to be the same across cultures and we can’t help but wonder what drives giving across cultures.

We would like to explore those differences too.

You can take the Motives to Donate survey yourself to see how your motives compare to people in our studies, by visiting our website at tinyurl.com/motives2donate.

Sara Konrath is an associate professor of philanthropy at Indiana University. Femida Handy is a professor social policy at the University of Pennsylvania. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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