Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Knowing More About a Charity Is Not Always Better

How can charities increase donations?

My family has always been involved with charitable organizations.  I have childhood memories of my parents going off to meetings for charities they supported.  These days, we set aside money for causes that are important to us.  As a result, we are on the mailing lists for many other charities that are looking for donations.  We get letters, notices of events, and newsletters telling us about the good work being done by a variety of groups.

The idea behind these mailings is that the more we learn about a particular charity, the more likely we might be to give money to it. 

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That makes a lot of sense, of course.  You cannot give money to a charity you have never heard about.  But, what is the best strategy for a charity to pursue?

This question was addressed in an interesting set of studies by Robert Smith and Norbert Schwarz in the October, 2012 issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

These researchers suggested that how much people know about a charity can have a different influence on people’s donations depending on how people interpret their level of knowledge.  Specifically, charities often have two goals.  One is to spread awareness about a particular issue.  Many charities focused on the environment, for example, work to help people to learn about threats to the climate and to fragile ecosystems.  The second goal is to help the problem.  A food bank, for example, works to feed hungry people.

When the goal of a charity is to help people, then the more people know about the charity, the more they should be interested in giving to it.  The idea is that when people know a lot about the charity, they will assume that the charity must be doing a lot of good work, and so their money will be well-used. 

When the goal of a charity is to spread awareness, though, then when people know a lot about it, that might actually hurt the charity.  The idea is that if the issue is already well-known, the charity may not need their help to spread the news about the issue. 

In one study, adults from a community were recruited to participate.  They read about a real charity that aims to reduce the influence of childhood heart disease.  Participants read one of two descriptions of the charity.  One description focused on how the charity helps children in need.  The other focused on how the charity raises awareness about childhood heart disease. 

After reading the description, participants took a quiz about the material to test how much they remembered about it.  Some participants took an easy quiz that asked only general questions about the charity.  Other participants took a hard quiz that asked them very specific questions.  People taking the hard quiz answered fewer questions correctly than people taking the easy quiz.  Those taking the hard quiz also rated that the quiz was more difficult than those who took the easy quiz. 

At the end of the study, participants had the chance to make actual donations to the charity.  All of the donated money was given to the charity.

When people read the description about the way the charity helps children with heart disease, people gave more money when they took the easy version of the quiz than when they took the hard version.  That is, when they believed they knew a lot about the charity, they gave more money than when they believed they did not know much about it.

When people read the description about the way the charity raises awareness about heart disease, the results were quite different.  Those who took the hard version of the quiz actually donated more money than those who took the easy version of the quiz.  When the charity is trying to raise awareness, people were more interested in giving money when they believed that they did not know much about the charity than when they believed they knew a lot.

This research demonstrates that the way you interpret how much you know depends on your goals.  For each version of the description of the charity, some people believed they knew more about it than others.  But, whether that knowledge affected their interest in donating depended on the goal of the charity. 

If you are trying to raise people’s awareness about an issue, then, it is important to go beyond just telling them about the issue.  There are two ways that you can make your message more effective.  First, start the discussion by getting people to think about how little they knew about this issue before hearing your message.  Second, remind them how little most people know about this issue, which is why it is crucial to raise awareness. 

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Check out my book Smart Thinking (Perigee).

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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