Earlier this year, in January and April, we introduced you to four Science and Imagination of Living Generously (SILG) grantees and their research on generosity (SILG was a regranting program conducted by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and funded by the John Templeton Foundation. Additional program details are available at GenerosityForLife.org). In this article, we’re diving into two more of those research projects, both of which were authored by economists.
Dr. Benjamin Marx, an economist from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, studies the economics of education and the nonprofit sector. For this study, he and fellow scholar Dr. Tatyana Deryugina studied tax data to explore charitable donations during a natural disaster.
“We were able to further our study on tornado-giving and see if charitable donations are above average in a given state when tornadoes are particularly severe that year,” Dr. Marx said. “Tornadoes, unlike hurricanes, are a more localized event, and the number and severity of them in any particular location are random during any given year,” he added.
Dr. Marx and Dr. Deryugina found that in locations with severe tornadoes, donations measured by income tax data significantly increased.
“The randomness of the tornadoes allows us to conclude that the donations are a response to those tornadoes,” Dr. Marx explained.
“The study addresses one of the big questions about generosity, which asks whether generosity towards one cause comes at the expense of another. In this situation, severe tornadoes significantly increased total donations in income tax data, which illustrates that people aren’t just diverting money from one charity to give to another. People become more generous when a new charitable cause arises,” Dr. Marx said. “In addition, we explored the role of media coverage and how charitable responses to tornadoes can better inform fundraisers.”
He also touched on the importance of studying generosity.
“People have incentives to free-ride on the generosity of others because we don’t receive the full benefit of our own generosity. Increasing generosity has the potential to make everyone better off,” Dr. Marx said.
In the other SILG project, Dr. Marta Serra-Garcia, a behavioral economist who studies moral and prosocial behavior at the University of California San Diego, and her colleague Dr. Jim Andreoni, conducted a study on how donation behavior changes when individuals donate immediately versus when donations are delayed.
“Students on campus were randomly assigned to different treatment groups. In the first study, we asked students to give to a charity called Give Directly,” Dr. Serra-Garcia said. “We asked one group to donate immediately and asked the other group if they would donate a week later.”
The results featured a strong preference for delaying the donation.
“We found that donations increased by 50 percent with the delay. When students were asked to donate immediately, 30 percent agreed. When they were asked to delay their donation, 46 percent agreed to donate,” Dr. Serra-Garcia explained.
She described the reasons why as well: “Previous studies have shown something called present bias. If the donation is immediate, I have to give up immediate consumption and that’s very costly, so I’m hesitant to donate at that time. I’m more likely to say yes because I feel less of a pain from giving up future consumption.”
The findings affect fundraisers and how they approach fundraising.
“How can fundraisers increase donations? For example, they could ask people to donate at a later date, or explore planned giving options with individuals,” Dr. Serra-Garcia said. “This can be problematic, though. If people pledge to donate at a later date, they may renege on their pledges. However, we found in later studies that if you continually thank donors for their pledges, it helps them stay engaged and they’ll be more willing to uphold their previous pledges.”
In the future, she would like to collaborate with a charity or fundraising initiative to implement the research.
“We want to find out exactly what this would look like and help an organization increase their dollars raised during their fundraising campaigns,” she said. “There’s also future work to be done in figuring out how the charitable ask can be formulated, so fundraisers and organizations can earn the most money from it.”
In addition to assistance with her own research, Dr. Serra-Garcia also enjoyed working with other scholars who received SILG grant funding.
“It was very interesting to see the different approaches that the different disciplines have and how they could complement the work that we’re doing,” she said.
Both scholars appreciated the support received from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
Dr. Marx: “The school has been a great source of support. The faculty of the school has provided great feedback and helped us access data to improve our paper.”
Dr. Serra-Garcia: “Everyone at the school has been very helpful and supportive and offered their help throughout the whole process. The way the grant was managed and the support we received was really great.”