Take 5: The Psychology of Charitable Giving
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Social Impact Marketing Organizations Nov 22, 2023

Take 5: The Psychology of Charitable Giving

What makes us give? Research reveals the surprising factors that shape our generosity.

person with money deciding which box to put it in.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Ike Silver

Maryam Kouchaki

Rima Touré-Tillery

and coauthors

Have you ever tried to raise money for a cause you care about? If so, you know that getting people to open their hearts—and wallets—is no small feat. Or perhaps you’re someone whose mailbox and inbox are stuffed with appeals from charitable organizations, and you want to understand why some move you so much more than others. Here are a few lessons from Kellogg faculty that can help you inspire more generosity in others and understand your own charitable impulses.

1. Hit “share” when you make a charitable donation

Have you ever made a donation and been prompted to share the news of your beneficence on social media? For many of us, the proposition feels a little dicey—even though we know charities really benefit from the word-of-mouth marketing. After all, there’s a risk that your followers will think of you as a braggart or as someone who conducts selfless acts for personal gain.

Fortunately, Ike Silver, an assistant professor of marketing at Kellogg, has identified a way around this conundrum. By reframing the request to share as a way to promote the cause, Silver’s research shows, charitable organizations can overcome the “ick” factor and get more donors to spread the word.

In one experiment, Silver and his coauthor partnered with DonorsChoose.org, a platform that supports classrooms in underfunded public schools in the United States. When donors give through the site, they encounter a pop-up window that thanks them for their donation and asks them to post about it on social media.

Half of the donors saw the website’s standard messaging: “Share this classroom with family and friends.” The other half saw a new message: “Your donation can start a chain reaction, but only if you tell others about the cause. Share this classroom with family and friends.”

The research team found that donors who saw the new messaging were five percent more likely to click on a social-media icon. Critically for schools, the authors also found that because it increased sharing, the treatment message prompted greater donor recruitment and raised more money overall.

So don’t feel shy about speaking out when you donate. In fact, Silver will be right there with you. “As I’ve studied this more and more, I feel more willing to go out on a limb for charities I care about,” he says. “I feel some apprehension about it, but my own research suggests that causes we care about lose out when we aren’t willing to advocate for them.”

2. “Buy one, donate one” programs beget more giving

If you’ve ever shopped with a company that promises to donate a product for each one sold, you’ve experienced what researchers call giving-by-proxy.

This practice has grown in popularity, with companies such as Bomba’s, Tom’s, and Warby Parker making charitable donations, whether cash or in kind, on behalf of consumers. Giving-by-proxy has even expanded outside of the retail context, with some companies dangling the promise of a philanthropic gift as an incentive for strong employee performance.

And it turns out that giving-by-proxy engenders more giving. A 2023 study by Maryam Kouchaki, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, found that people are more prosocial following a giving-by-proxy experience. “There’s a spillover effect,” she says.

Kouchaki and her coauthors uncovered this effect in several experiments, including one using Amazon’s now-defunct AmazonSmile program. Under this program, customers shopped at an identical-looking website, AmazonSmile.com, where purchases benefited a charity of their choice.

“As I’ve studied this more and more, I feel more willing to go out on a limb for charities I care about.”

Ike Silver

The researchers gave participants an Amazon gift card and asked them to choose from one of six items to purchase. Half of the participants (the giving-by-proxy group) were told they would be making the purchase through AmazonSmile and were given a brief description of the program, while the rest were simply directed to Amazon.

Then, participants were told they would be entered into a raffle to win $50. If they won the raffle, they could either keep the winnings or donate half to a charity of their choice.

Participants were significantly more likely to donate the potential raffle winnings to charity in the AmazonSmile group than in the control group.

The message is clear: giving-by-proxy puts us in the mood to give more.

3. Donors like to feel cool

Literally cool, that is. Other research by Kouchaki found that prosocial behavior takes a hit during heat waves.

One experiment included in the 2017 study involved students enrolled in two different sections of the same undergraduate course. One section met in a comfortable, air-conditioned room that was 69 degrees Fahrenheit, while the other met in a room that reached 80 degrees.

Students in both rooms were asked to volunteer to fill out a 150-question survey, ostensibly to help a nonprofit. Because the survey was so long, they were told they could stop whenever they wanted.

The room’s temperature made a big difference in the amount of help students were willing to offer: students in the comfortable classroom answered an average of 35 questions, while students in the steamy room answered an average of only 6.

When it comes to helping out, then, unexpected contextual factors matter more than you might imagine. “There’s been the perspective that there are good people and bad people,” Kouchaki says, “but we show that something that’s out of people’s control is influencing their decisions.”

4. Stock up those printers, because paper beats digital

Another contextual factor that can influence donations: how you ask. It turns out that people are more likely to engage in virtuous behavior when they make their selections on paper than when they are using a digital device—a pattern Rima Touré-Tillery, an associate professor of marketing at Kellogg, and her coauthor dubbed the “good on paper” effect.

As part of the study, the research team approached 200 adults walking downtown in a large American city and asked them to complete a survey. Half of the participants were given a pen and paper to complete the survey and the other half an iPad. Both versions used a similar layout and font.

At the end of the survey, they saw a charitable appeal from a nonprofit organization called No Kid Hungry. Participants were given the option of providing their email address to receive more information about how to donate. The researchers used this choice—whether to provide an email address—as their indicator of virtuous behavior.

There was a marked difference in response rates between the paper and tablet surveys: 20 percent of pen-and-paper participants provided their email address, as compared with just 7 percent of tablet-using participants. “This was a pretty robust effect,” Touré-Tillery says.

But what’s so great about paper? Touré-Tillery found that what we do on paper feels more real than what we do on a digital device—“and because it feels more real, it’s more consequential,” she explains, and therefore matters more for our self-perception.

Of course, there’s an environmental cost to going analogue, so Touré-Tillery suggests charitable organizations think strategically about when to use paper—and, perhaps, how to make their virtual communications feel more impactful and more personal: “Anything that makes the experience feel more real and more self-diagnostic should generate more generous behavior.”

5. Emphasize local connections

We intuitively understand that a ball hurled directly at our face hurts more if thrown from a few feet away than from the other side of the baseball diamond. The closer the target, the bigger the impact.

Surprisingly, the same logic applies to decisions about charitable donations, according to other research by Touré-Tillery. When people see donation recipients as close by, they believe their donations will exert more influence and are more likely to open their wallets. Importantly, Touré-Tillery and her coauthor found, it’s the perception of closeness that matters; the actual distance is immaterial.

For example, in one experiment, 160 online participants were offered a chance at a $20 raffle prize. One group read and retyped a paragraph about globalization that described how new technology had made the world shrink and noted that “No country, city, town or village is too far away.” Another group copied a paragraph that emphasized the opposite idea: a description of long-distance flights that traverse “a great circle along the diameter of the Earth.” Participants were then asked if they would donate $10 of their potential raffle winnings to an Ivory Coast charity. About half of the people who had read about globalization agreed to donate, while only about one-third of those who had read about long flights did.

Ultimately, the study suggests that altering perceptions of distance can affect people’s decisions to give—even if the actual proximity has not changed. Organizations might consider crafting their appeals to make recipients seem closer to home. For example, an international charity could designate a local branch as the point of contact for donations.

“Any way you can frame the recipient as being close to the donor can only help,” Touré-Tillery says.

About the Writer

Susie Allen is the senior research editor of Kellogg Insight.

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