What Drives Us to Donate?

5 fascinating ways charities get us to open our wallets.

Posted Dec 01, 2020

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels
Source: Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

Ever wonder why some charities can get you to open your wallet while others don’t? Science has some answers. 

There’s a reason the holidays are called the Season of Giving. In fact, studies show that nearly one-third of all donations are made in December. 

With thousands of charities and causes competing for your generosity, especially today on Giving Tuesday, it’s not surprising that asking for money has evolved into an art form—so much so, that sometimes our decision to give has nothing to do with the organization itself, but rather, how their message is presented. 

Below are five unexpected and research-backed tactics that might be driving you to donate. 

1. Beauty trumps need: Even though people recognize they should donate to needier causes, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found that many donors decide who to give to based on appearances. In a series of studies, thousands of participants were shown photos of real charity recipients and asked to choose who they’d want to donate to.

The results indicated that beautiful people (and animals!) were overwhelmingly more likely to be on the receiving end of charitable gifts. For example, giraffes and zebras (considered very beautiful) earned more money compared to penguins or orangutans (not as beautiful), even though the latter are more endangered and in need of help. Maybe a silver lining exists here: when pressed to be more thoughtful and deliberate about their decisions, participants ended up giving to the needier cause.

2. Groups are a turn off: You’ve likely heard of the “bystander effect” which is the idea that people are less likely to help someone if there are other people present. The most famous example of this phenomenon is the murder of Kitty Genovese, who in 1964, was attacked and stabbed by a man outside of her apartment building in New York City. Not one of the several dozen neighbors who heard her screams and pleas for help called the police, assuming that another would. 

A 2013 study at the University of Missouri-Columbia confirms that the bystander effect also applies to giving. For the study, participants were divided into singles, small groups that were unable to communicate with each other, and small groups that could freely communicate with each other, and given money they could either keep or give away. The singles donated nearly twice as much money as the other groups. Having the ability to communicate with each other greatly affected “the variability and quantity of money given,” according to Karthik Panchanathan, one of the researchers. Though, the effect tended to be negative: the groups that were able to communicate with each other donated the least. 

3. Let them indulge: Imagine two charities are asking you for $5. One says, “It’s just $5, the cost of a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream,” while the other says, “It’s just $5, the cost of a tube of toothpaste.” Which charity are you more likely to give to? If you said the first, then you’re not alone. A 2015 study at the American Marketing Association conducted this test on behalf of Unicef and found that people were far more likely to give when they compared their donation to buying an indulgent treat (e.g., ice cream) versus a practical item (e.g., toothpaste). The authors found that choosing ice cream made people feel selfish, so in order to compensate and feel better about themselves, they opted to donate instead.

4. Fonts matter: For years, the internet’s go-to fonts have been either Arial or Times New Roman, but a new study from Ohio State University suggests that font choice matters when asking for help. Namely, choose fonts that match the tone of your message. For example, researchers found that warm, heartfelt donation requests were more effective when written in a handwriting font. Messages that focused on power or efficiency of an organization performed better when they used business-like (or obviously computer-generated) fonts. Participants not only gave more when the font matched the tone, but they also felt more trusting of the organization.

5. Make more by matching: Given the choice between a one-off donation and a recurring one, most of us will opt for the former—even though we know the recurring one is better for the charity. So what’s the secret to getting us to sign up for those repeat donations? According to the American Marketing Association, the answer is by matching donations. A 2014 AMA study found that people were significantly more likely to upgrade and sign up for recurring donations if they were told that a generous donor had agreed to match 100% of new monthly donations made that day. Even those donors who did not make the leap to recurring donations often ended up increasing their original one-off donation as well.

Have you noticed any of these tactics being used by your favorite charities? And more importantly, have they worked?