Thu, January 27 2011

Science of Giving: Six Fundamental Truths from Two Top Minds

Katya Andresen's avatar

Author, Robin Hood Marketing

Filed under:   Marketing essentials •

I am continuing my ongoing blog of the fascinating book, The Science of Giving, which covers a range of seminal studies about giving psychology. But today, instead of blog a chapter, I’m going to pause for reflection on some of the most important content covered in the studies we’ve discussed here on the blog. The book’s wonderful editors, Daniel Oppenheimer and Christopher Olivola, have joined me in a Q&A on this topic.

Katya: You have an incredible body of research assembled in your book. It covers a gamut of questions - which all seem to lead to some universal answers. Do you agree?

Olivola: Yes, we’re really happy with the breadth of questions, topics, theories, and approaches covered in the book. Of course, most of the credit goes to the chapter authors who did a superb job conveying the research in their respective fields as well as their own work. I always hesitate to talk about universal answers when discussing human psychology, which amazingly complex (and therefore fascinating). However, I think I would agree there are some broad insights to be gleaned from the experimental work on charitable giving.

Katya: What would you say are the three top, fundamental truths The Science of Giving has to say about human beings and the act of giving?

Oppenheimer: First, people aren’t ‘rational’ in the economic sense when it comes to giving. We are influenced by all sorts of things that probably shouldn’t matter. We give on whims and impulses, and make our giving decisions based on our emotions.

Often, this leads to counterintuitive behaviors, which leads to the second important message from the book: Evidence based practice really is important. Fundraisers who use their intuition to design solicitations could end up with appeals that are unsuccessful (or even backfire!). There is a real role for research in determining the best fundraising approaches, and charities really should be thinking empirically about donations.

Crafting solicitations that appeal to human psychology can feel manipulative at times, which is why the third message from the book is so important: people really do want to give. They like giving; it makes them happy; it provides meaning. When we help people give, we’re not just assisting charities and the causes that receive the money, we’re also helping the donors.

Olivola: Three broad insights that emerge from the work covered in our book (in no particular order):

(1) When, whether, and how much people decide to give is strongly influenced by social norms: what other people (namely their friends, neighbors, colleagues, and others like them) seem to be giving.

(2) Donation decisions are driven to a large extent by how people feel about giving to a particular cause (i.e., by affective factors such as emotions and moods elicited by appeals to give), rather than by how much good they could actually do, even though most donors would generally prefer to do the most good possible.

(3) People often derive a lot of satisfaction, meaning, and happiness from giving, yet the relationship between giving and well-being is complex to begin with and further complicated by the fact that people generally dislike parting with hard-earned money.

Another major point that unites all of these chapters is the importance of experimentation as a tool for advancing our understanding of charity. Most of what we know about charitable giving has, up to now, largely been drawn from our (often faulty) intuitions and from correlations we observe between the way charities approach potential donors and how these potential donors react. However, intuitions and correlations cannot tell us what causes what or which factors are the most important in getting people to give more or more often. That’s why more experiments need to be carried out, not only by social scientists, but also (we hope) by charities/nonprofits themselves.


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