Patrick Dwyer, Ph.D., assistant professor of philanthropic studies and a social psychologist, teamed up with the Women’s Philanthropy Institute to research and produce WPI’s newest report Encouraging Giving to Women’s and Girls’ Causes: The Role of Social Norms.
The report focuses on how social norms, or behaviors that are common, valued, and accepted by others, influence giving to these causes. Unique to the report are the insights and expertise of Dwyer, whose previous research into social psychological factors that affect giving and volunteering provides a fresh framework for studying giving in this area.
Social psychology offers a perspective for understanding people’s giving behaviors that shines a light on people’s social environments, which are sometimes overlooked. Dwyer provided context for this research report:
“It’s often thought that the people who perform good deeds are just good people, and those who don’t are not. But we can probably all think of cases when someone we thought of as being kind and generous, perhaps even ourselves, let an opportunity to help pass them by.
“Or, when someone we thought of as being selfish and unkind ended up surprising us by doing something nice. These examples suggest that things other than people’s underlying traits can shift their behavior in important ways.
“We know from social psychology that people’s generosity is not just about who they are, and their characteristics as individuals. It’s also about the environments they live in, and those environments very often contain other people. Who are these other people, what are they doing, and how does that social context influence us?
“And they don’t even need to be physically present. Research has shown that even just thinking about or imagining others can influence our behavior. Think about your family, your friends, or your boss. They might not always be right there, but does that mean they’re not influencing how you’re acting? This idea that human beings are intimately tuned into their social worlds is the perspective that social psychology brings to the study of philanthropy and charitable giving.”
He also stated that another emerging way to study and analyze giving is using the idea of future norms. Social norms can change over time. Take the rise in cohabitation or vegetarianism, for example. Dwyer hypothesized that in the same way, people may become more charitable over time, or direct their giving to different causes based on how norms are changing.
“A couple of recent studies on social norms have found that if you emphasize that a behavior is becoming more common over time, it’s a particularly effective way of getting people to adopt the behavior,” he said.
These social psychological perspectives on norms and behaviors provided new insights when researchers analyzed giving to women’s and girls’ causes, with some surprising results. Women responded more to norms of giving by other women, which Dwyer had anticipated.
“People tend to respond more to norms about their own reference group, or people who are like them. So women can be expected to respond more to norms concerning other women’s behaviors, which we found to be the case here,” Dwyer said.
However, it differed with men.
“When you look at men’s giving to these types of causes, it’s strongly tied to how they think both men and women give,” he added. “So it raises the question: ‘why are men also responding to norms about women’s behavior?’
Dwyer and his fellow researchers posit that since men may believe that women have greater knowledge and understanding about women’s and girls’ causes, and the issues surrounding them, women and their charitable giving could act as an important signal about the worth of those causes.
“It could be a cue for men when they see women and men giving to these causes that there is something important happening,” Dwyer explained.
For practitioners, the report’s findings provide valuable insights to understanding social context and future support of charitable causes.
“First, it shows fundraisers and other philanthropy practitioners that it’s important to pay attention to people’s social context in general,” Dwyer said. “This kind of information about people’s social worlds can nudge them toward giving.
“In addition to this core idea of social context, the report highlights that if a cause has momentum, even though it’s not yet popular, nonprofits should not be afraid to emphasize that new energy. That alone could be enough to draw more people into the cause, since it could be the norm in five or 10 years. They may base their giving on their perceptions of the future, rather than on what’s occurring just at this time.”