Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Philanthropy: What Gives?

Altruism isn't the only reason we donate. Experts say that our own sense of self-worth plays into whether or not we give -- or don't give -- our hard-earned dollars to charity.

Good boys and girls eagerly anticipate gifts aplenty every holiday season, but we grownups are also expected to give at Christmastime, as the torrent of mail from the nation's 1.5 million non-profit organizations and charities constantly reminds us. With the economy still weak and government handouts declining, donor dollars are hard to come by, and charities will be pulling out all the stops. So in a time of pinched pocketbooks, how do you get people to give away their cash?

"Seven out of 10 adults give away money, and they have an enormous range of motives," says fundraising expert Kim Klein. Some give out of compassion or sympathy; others out of pride. But Klein doesn't recommend trying to guilt people into a donation. "Guilt will make a person give once, but a person will not give over and over out of guilt."

"Try to appeal to a person's higher self," suggests Klein, who publishes the Grassroots Fundraising Journal. It's part of what psychologist Abraham Maslow called self-actualization: People express themselves most fully when contributing to something bigger than themselves.

The need to feel important may help explain why families living on incomes of $10,000 give away an average of 4 percent of their income, while families earning $100,000 donate just 1 percent. "It makes them feel powerful and makes them feel good-like, I'm not a sad sack, I'm a participant," says Klein. Lower-income people aren't necessarily more generous, but the need for charity is much more obvious to people who themselves are struggling to make ends meet.

With receipts dwindling, many non-profits will be tempted to tell you that without your gift, they'll go under. But that's a holiday recipe for failure. "There's no worse fundraising strategy than that," says Robert Zimmerman, a San Francisco-based fundraising consultant. "How many times can you tell people there's a crisis? Nobody wants to support a sinking ship." Instead, effective campaigns sell success. Charities have to be very clear about where dollars have gone, and how efficiently they've been spent. "You have to make a solid case that the organization is viable, and that your services really have an impact," says Zimmerman.

Credibility issues aside, tugging at the heartstrings is still the most effective strategy. "What's going to move people?" asks Zimmerman. "What's going to make them cry? Cold statistics won't cut it. You need to use photographs and heartrending examples."

Yet coercive or condescending campaigns turn people off. "You don't want the story to be cheesy. People get tired of way-too-dramatic stories. They get a sort of donor fatigue," Klein explains.

For their part, fundraisers have to overcome the embarrassment of begging. "What you believe in has to be bigger than what you're afraid of," says Klein. "If somebody rejects you and you take it personally," she cautions, "you're having a major ego attack." Klein assures fledgling fundraisers, "Although most people don't like to ask for money, most people like to give it away."