Altruism or Social Pressure? Why People Really Give
People new to fundraising are hesitant to ask for the money. It doesn’t seem to make sense that people would give. Why? "How will this donation benefit the giver?" youngsters ask.
But give they do.
I decided to find an answer from social science. After digging through the plethora of my husband’s human behavior books littering the office and bedroom, and spilling off the coffee table, I quit and just asked him, "Why do people give?" This turned into a two-day conversation with multiple coffees and at least two varieties of wine, which is to say, we worked hard. Encapsulated below is our conversation.
Much has been written about the research demonstrating that humans find altruistic acts to be rewarding. This elicits the so-called "warm glow effect" that follows making donations and a whole range of prosocial behaviors. Thanks to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology, researchers can see brain activity during certain actions. In a study on charitable giving, when people donated to a worthy cause, the midbrain region of the brain lit up. This area of the brain is responsible for our cravings (food and sex) and pleasure rewards, showing the link between charitable giving and pleasure. This reward or pleasure response to giving is the physiological reason behind the warm glow, that good feeling you get when you give to charity.
But, as we all know, donating to simply feel good isn’t the whole story behind why people give. Like most everything else with people, motivation to give is tangled up in the sea of social relationships in which we all swim.
One powerful social driver is what psychologists call "image motivation," the desire to be liked and well-regarded by others. Simply stated, we want others to think of us as the kinds of people who engage in prosocial activities. That warm glow is great, but we enjoy basking in the warmth in public spaces where everyone else can see our largesse. However, people rarely acknowledge image motivation when asked why they behave altruistically. Typically they say things like, "I like the cause," or "I give because I want to help another person." People are largely unaware of their desires to be seen doing good—social pressure.
University of Chicago economist John List examined the role that social pressure played in motivating people to donate to a Chicago children’s hospital. He set up an experiment in which door-to-door donations were solicited in one of three ways. People were notified:
- With a cold call, aka a knock on the door.
- Ahead of time that someone would be coming to the door and asking for a donation.
- Ahead of time and given the choice to opt out of the visit.
List hypothesized that if people gave altruistically, it shouldn’t matter if they knew a knock on the door was coming. Predictably, that’s not what happened.
When people were notified ahead of time, answering the knock at the door fell by 25 percent. When given the chance to opt out, donations fell by 50 percent. List and his co-authors say that this shows how much social pressure shapes generosity. He concluded that 75 percent of the dollars donated were due to social pressure, with 25 percent due to true altruism. Basically, 75 percent of people either didn’t answer the door or opted out because it is uncomfortable saying "no" to someone’s face.
This is pretty interesting—and useful—information. List believed his study’s takeaway was that nonprofits would be smart to focus on the 25 percent who are genuinely altruistic, because they are most likely to be long-term supporters.
The real punch line is that people behave differently depending on specific social contexts. Understanding how people respond in various situations will enable us to create types of interactions that increase the odds that they will want to give—to participate. This is our job as professional fundraisers.
Forgive us, List, but thinking like a chief development officer makes you create those situations that apply social pressure to donate. Thinking like an economist just makes you try to find what already exists.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising” and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina also regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.