In Myth #8 of Stanford Social Innovation Review’s “Eight Myths of US Philanthropy,” Dr. Sara Konrath discusses motivations for why donors give.
Nonprofits often appeal to donor compassion to inspire giving—from advertising photos of emaciated dogs or sick children to tailoring email campaigns to tug at the emotional heartstrings. In reality, individuals not only give because they care but also for many other reasons that are self-interested and/or socially motivated.
Drs. Sara Konrath and Femida Handy identified six separate motives for giving, including trust (seeing charities properly use donations for the public good), altruism (concern or compassion for those less fortunate), social benefits (nonmonetary benefit, being part of a social network), tax benefits (monetary private benefit), and egoism (enhance reputation, experience good feelings about oneself). Financial constraints can negatively motivate charitable giving.
In one study focused on the altruism and egoism motivations, Konrath and her students surveyed more than 9,000 Americans about their participation in the 2014 “Ice Bucket Challenge” for the ALS Association. The researchers analyzed motivations of givers who 1) only donated, 2) posted videos of themselves completing the challenge, or 3) donated and participated in the challenge.
The study asked respondents to self-evaluate their individual narcissism on a scale of one to seven, with seven being “very narcissistic.” Thirty-four percent of respondents scored themselves higher than four—including 44 percent of millennials, who had the highest scores for narcissism among the generational cohorts surveyed.
While egoism and narcissism may promote some types of giving, other motivations for giving also appear.
Recent research illustrates that the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) is expected to affect individual charitable giving, potentially resulting in $19.1 billion less in charitable donations each year than had it not been enacted. Estimates suggest that up to 2.6 million fewer households could donate each between 2018 and 2025.
TCJA increased the standard deduction from $6,500 to $12,000 for individual filers, from $13,000 to $24,000 for joint returns, and from $9,550 to $18,000 for heads of households. As a result, fewer tax payers will claim a deduction for charitable deduction and the tax savings for each dollar donated will be reduced.
All this to say that altruism and trust motivations don’t impact givers who donate less because of recent tax law changes; instead, receiving tax benefits may be one of the primary motivations why these individuals donate.
Accruing a social benefit, including enhancing one’s reputation, also motivates giving. According to Rene Bekkers and Pamala Wiepking, those who give to charitable causes are held in “high regard” by their peers. Survey studies, including Pitts & Skelly and Smith & McSweeney have found that donations can be strongly related to measures of social pressure.
These donors don’t give because of altruistic reasons. Instead, they wish to enhance their reputations or belong to a certain social group, and fit under Konrath and Handy’s “social benefit” motivation.
Donors give for various reasons. Each generation brings unique contexts and life experiences to charitable giving. Fundraisers might regularly survey donors to discover their motivations and tailor requests—from mass appeals to major gifts—in whatever way attracts funders across the motivational spectrum to advance charitable goals.
For example, those who donate with egoistic or narcissistic motivations may be best reached with a broad campaign strategy that encourages easy social media participation and creates media that can build personal profiles on social media.
However, it’s important to note that a mix of motivations may encourage charitable giving and volunteering. Surveying donors gives nonprofits the chance to learn about their donors, their motivations, and how best to appeal to and raise more money from those individuals.
Interested in learning more about the psychology of giving? Keep an eye out for Dr. Konrath’s book, which will be published next year.