Why the Rich are Greedy, Part 2
A recent blog we wrote titled, “Why the Rich are Greedy (and What to Do About It),” garnered some interesting responses from readers. The blog cites research documenting that wealthy people give a smaller percentage of their discretionary income to charity when compared with less well-off individuals. It also mentions the body of psychological research that suggests that affluence tends to make people less sensitive to the needs of others and why.
In response, one reader said, “Having worked with major donors, I’ve seen unprecedented generosity of both time and money.” This is a fair point. Like any area of psychological study, research that characterizes a group (e.g. the wealthy) in a certain way (e.g. more greedy than those less well-off) deals with group averages. There are always going to be individual exceptions to the average.
Plus in absolute dollars, as a group the wealthy donate more money overall. It has been estimated that as much as 70 percent of all charitable donations in the U.S. are made by the wealthy. This is likely a result of wealth inequality. Specifically, the top 0.1 percent of people in the U.S. have more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.
Not only do the wealthy differ in the sheer volume of dollars donated, they also tend to give to different causes than those less well-off. Their gifts often go to the arts, universities and health care organizations. Poorer donors lean more to human service organizations whose focus is on serving the poor. In general, people tend to donate to groups to which they have some kind of a connection. As a result, it can be more difficult for anti-poverty and relief aid organizations to make inroads with wealthy donors.
Still, The Philanthropy Roundtable reports that while families with household annual earnings of less than $50,000 were less likely to donate any money to charity than those earning more, when they did donate, they gave a greater percentage of income than more affluent families. And a 2014 survey found that after the Great Recession (between 2006 and 2012), those earning $200,000 or more annually reduced their giving by 4.6 percent, while those with an income of less than $100,000 increased their donations by 4.5 percent.
So, let’s try to agree that many affluent people can afford to give away much more to charity than they do. Why don’t they? One reader of the previous blog speculated, “Most wealthy have worked hard and build their wealth by using it wisely. Of course, it will be difficult to get them to part with their money.” On first blush, that argument sounds reasonable. But wouldn’t that apply just as much to the middle class as the 1 percent? Don’t they work hard for their money, too?
Our point is not to trash the wealthy. Without their largesse, 70 percent of charitable giving in the U.S. would evaporate. But not to recognize that the rich, as a group, tend to give more to certain organizations, and that their motivations for giving may be different and will lead to leaving money on the table.
A recent series of studies conducted by psychologists at Harvard University and the University of Chicago is useful in crafting an approach likely to succeed with the wealthy. Researchers explain that when soliciting from the wealthy, nonprofits may be working against a behavioral bias. Affluence generates a feeling of autonomy and self-sufficiency—what psychologists call “agency” or “independence.” This can cause people to focus on personal goals rather than the needs of others.
Less well-off individuals tend to generate what psychologists refer to as “communion,” a feeling of connection to others. This can lead people to focus on the needs of others, rather than their own personal needs. Since nonprofits deal with prosocial causes, the fact that the wealthy in general may be biased to be less community-minded can create a barrier for organizations that emphasize the social benefits of contributing.
What’s the solution? Tailoring messaging to the wealthy in ways that coincide with their goals and motivations. When researchers modified the wording of various charitable appeals, they were able to elicit more donations from affluent individuals.
In one study, a set of messages read, “Let’s Save a Life Together. Here’s How.” Another read, “You = Life Saver. Like the Sound of That?” People with average and below-average levels of wealth were most like to donate in response to the first message. Individuals with above-average levels of wealth were more likely to donate in response to the second message. Wealth was the only difference between the two groups, there were no differences in age, ethnicity or gender.
When a solicitation resonates with an individual’s self-image, they are more likely to give. The wealthy are more likely to donate when presented with messaging that appeals to the sense of independence and self-reliance.
These results were replicated for an annual funding campaign with 12,000 alumni for the Harvard Business School. Wealthier individuals who read messaging focused on personal agency made a significantly greater average contribution than alums who received messaging focused on communion.
In the end, selfishness or generosity may not be determined by a person’s wealth. Rather, it may depend on whether the ask being made of you fits the way you see yourself.
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 the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," 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 regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." 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.