- Fri, December 10 2010
- Filed under: Fundraising essentials
All month, I’m blogging the fascinating book, The Science of Giving, which covers a range of seminal studies about giving psychology.
Today’s topic: research by Christopher Olivola, an editor of the book, on the so-called martyrdom effect. This is a fun follow-up to my earlier posts on giving making us happy and comfy.
The bottom line of this study is that people sometimes are most motivated to choose charitable giving involving significant pain and effort.
Here are the key points:
1. There is an economic, rational actor theory that says people only care about maximizing their own personal utility, not the utility of others. But that’s not true - people do give time and money to others. There are limits to self interest. So a model called “pareto hedonism” is considered more realistic - when people can make things better for themselves without decreasing benefits to others, they should.
2. At the other extreme, there is a moral theory that the greatest collective good comes from everyone sacrificing as much time and money as possible. But that doesn’t happen either - there are limits to altruism. So a model called “pareto utilitarianism” is considered more realistic - that people should help others without decreasing benefits to themselves.
3. BUT. The author says there’s actually a lot of research throwing both of these models into question. People actually often most value things that are really difficult to achieve. And people might even donate more when it’s painful. This is called the martyrdom effect—ie people will suffer for a cause they care about deeply, and they derive greater value and meaning from that painful effort. Olivola cites marathons and bike-a-thons, and he looked at some charity endurance event results. The bigger the effort put in by participants, the more they raised. And the more pain participants experienced, the more their friends were likely to give in support of them. Olivola also did a curious study wherein participants donated more to of their budgets to a charity if they were told giving required putting their hands in freezing cold water for a minute - than if they didn’t have to do that. OK, that’s weird. Don’t put dry ice in your end-of-year appeals. But you get the idea. When the pain had something to do with a cause that involves human suffering (like starvation, disease, etc.), vs. suffering for a kid’s park, it made more of a difference. Conclusion? Pareto hedonism doesn’t necessarily prove a match to reality.
4. Does pareto utilitarianism prove out? This would suggest the most efficient ways of raising money are the best. A bike-a-thon is not efficient. And big events are a pricey way to raise money. The utilitarianism concept was further thrown in doubt by research showing how people reacted to two different ethical scenarios. A doctor runs a successful practice in Hollywood, earning $700,000/year and giving $20K to Doctors Without Borders to save 500 lives. Another doctor working for Doctors Without Borders in developing countries makes $18K/year and saves 200 lives. Which job choice is better? The guy who saves fewer lives, said the research subjects. The sacrifice mattered.
5. So what does this mean for us? The study says:
-If your cause focuses on human suffering, consider “painful effort fundraising” opportunities like fasting or a-thons. Don’t make them seem too impossible - near-death experiences are a deterrent - but challenging.
-Also weigh the costs of these events and their impact on the cause. A big fancy endurance race may attract people but cost so much that less goes to a cause. Consider strenuous events that contribute to change - like rebuilding homes, picking up trash or packaging medical supplies.
What do you think?