Research assistants

Who will raise the most? Research assistants pose to have their photo taken before going door-to-door.

Why do people give to charity? Generally, we would assume that people give because they are generous. Yet understanding the WHY behind giving is actually a much bigger question than we might think. Generosity is an important driver of giving, but it is not as important as we might think. In fact, a lot of giving behavior is driven by another concern—self-interest. Ever given to an organization because it gives you a "feel-good," warm, fuzzy feeling? That's self-interest. We set out to discover the WHY behind giving in a door to door charitable giving campaign, and found that there's more than meets the eye.

Our investigation began like this. On a chilly Saturday afternoon in December, 2005, Jeanne, a bright, energetic junior at East Carolina University (ECU), trotted up the walk of a suburban home in Pitt County, N.C. Jeanne wore a shirt emblazoned with the name “ECU Natural Hazards Mitigation Research Center.” She also wore a badge with her photograph, name, and solicitation permit number on it. She knocked, and a middle-aged man opened the door. 

“Yes?” he said, eyeing her. 

“Hi,” she said, smiling brightly. “My name is Jeanne. I’m an ECU student visiting Pitt County households today on behalf of the newly formed ECU Natural Hazards Mitigation Research Center. Would you like to make a contribution today?” It’s probably safe to say that the last thing the middle-aged man had on his mind was the possibility of Jeanne being a double agent. Yes, she was really trying to raise money for the center. But she was also part of a bigger experiment involving dozens of college students knocking on the doors of 5,000 households in Pitt County. 

Some of the students just asked for donations with a standard script, but we were interested in finding out what sorts of self-interested motivations can influence giving, so another set of solicitors advertised a small incentive in the form of a charitable raffle. If you’ve ever been to a county fair or a big sporting event you’ve probably had the chance to participate in a charitable raffle. It’s pretty simple: the more you give, the higher your chance of winning some big prize. Sometimes the prize is a piece of memorabilia or an exotic beach vacation, but in Pitt County the winner of our charitable raffle received $1,000.

What did we find? Not surprisingly, the raffle-ticket raised roughly 50 percent more in proceeds than the request for donations alone, and doubled the number of people who gave to our cause. 

But we also discovered something else that really shouldn’t have surprised us. As it turned out, the more attractive the solicitor, the bigger the donations raised. We had photographs of our solicitors rated for physical attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 10, and we found that someone like Jeanne, who’d been rated an 8, raised about 70 percent more than an equally qualified fundraiser who rated a 6. Perhaps not surprisingly, they enjoyed the greatest fundraising success when a male answered the door.

When it comes to self-interested motivations, though, not all incentives are created equal. Years after our first fundraising campaign with ECU, we had another batch of students go around to the same houses in Pitt County and we found that people who gave because of the raffle continued to give years later. Those that gave the first time around just to see a pretty face? They were suddenly much less generous.

It turns out that bribing generosity out of donors isn’t that easy. You have to be careful to pick incentives that suggest your charity is of a high quality, especially if you want donors that give over and over again. These are a few of the insights gained from this set of experiments, conducted with coauthors Craig LandryAndreas LangeMichael Price, and Nicholas Rupp.

This study is part of a new book, The Why Axis. To learn more, visit

About the Authors

John List

John List is the Homer J. Livingston Professor in Economics and the College and Chairman of the Department of Economics at the University of Chicago.

Uri Gneezy, Ph.D.

Uri Gneezy, Ph.D. is the Epstein/Atkinson Endowed Chair in Behavioral Economics and professor of economics and strategy at the Rady School of Management, UC San Diego.

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