Science and Pyschology of Giving

Charitable Giving – The Science & The Psychology

As an organisation who rely on donations and successful fundraising, from school PTA’s to charities – Wouldn’t it be great to know exactly how to motivate and encourage people to donate to your cause? To read the minds of potential supporters and know the best way to tap into their generosity and keep them giving?

Well, we might not have psychic powers, but there is research out there to suggest what the science and psychology is behind charitable giving, and how our brains work in relation to making donations. With the knowledge of these things, you can plan your fundraising campaigns to be as effective as possible.

So let’s start with the brain science bit

Do you know what happens in the brain when we feel pleasure? That could be anything from orgasm, learning, junk food, gambling, prayer, dancing, playing – It all causes the same physical reaction in our brains.

Things we enjoy on a transcendental level activate a pleasure circuit in our brain, both anatomically and biochemically.

These things evoke neural signals that all meet in the ‘medial forebrain pleasure circuit’, a small group of interconnected brain areas where dopamine (a neuraltransmitter) plays a vital role.

Research has been carried out (see study from William Harbaugh, University of Oregon) to see how giving and paying taxes affects the brain’s pleasure circuit.

Why do people give to charity?

There are 3 main theories of why people give to charity:


By giving, they feel like they are doing good and this gives them a feeling of satisfaction. They are not interested in any processes as to exactly how their money gets to those in need, only that it does help and is of benefit to someone. In this case, it shouldn’t matter whether giving is a choice or mandatory (e.g. tax) for them to feel pleasure.

Warm Glow

This one is down to people making their own decision whether or not to give. The pleasure they get from this type of giving is from the sense of agency, to make that decision to give, much like how people tend to pick their own lottery numbers. In this instance, mandatory giving (like tax) would not be expected to produce a ‘warm glow’.

Social Status Enhancement

The people in this scenario gain pleasure from appearing wealthy and generous to their peers. They view charitable giving as a way of enhancing their social status.

What did the research say?

It’s also worth noting that these theories are not mutually exclusive – Someone might feel all three of these. In their study, Dr. Harbaugh and his team designed Altruism and Warm Glow. 19 women performed various anonymous economic transactions whilst in a brain scanner experiment to address the first two theories, but not the third. By making it anonymous, the design meant that enhancement of social status as a motivator was removed.

Each of the subjects received $100 into an account, which would then be allocated to a local food bank in various amounts. In some trials, the subject could choose whether to donate, in another they had no choice and in the rest there were no conditions on the money.

The subjects were presented with an amount of money on the screen. A few seconds later they were told one of the following; the money was a gift, the money was an involuntary tax, or they had the option to donate it to charity.

The results from the brain scanner showed that both the tax and choosing to give to charity activated regions of the pleasure circuit across the whole population of the study. They also found that on average, a stronger activation of the pleasure circuit came from charitable giving than did taxation.

These results support both the Altruism and Warm Glow models of charitable giving motivators.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean that everyone’s brains respond in this way. Roughly half of the subjects also had more pleasure centre activation from receiving the money than giving it, and the other half were the opposite. And, unsurprisingly, the people that gained more pleasure from giving were the ones who chose to give more to charity that the others.

So how do you use motivators to encourage people to donate?

In the real world, social interactions and reputations are critical, and so it makes sense that fundraisers could use these motivators to encourage people to give. As human beings, our behaviour is embedded in a social context which influences our feelings and emotions in a powerful way. That good feeling we get from giving – altruistically, to decide for ourselves, and/or appearing generous – is contagious. Once a person gives, it will motivate those around them aswell as make them want to give again and feel that good feeling. Fundamentally, giving is a social act. Researchers found that when JustGiving donors see that the donor before them has made a large donation, they make a larger donation themselves. Similarly, with ‘match funds’, if the person or organisation match funding for a charity is known rather than anonymous, it increases the amount of donations made.

What we can learn from all this brain science is that people will generally give to feel good – Whether this is altruistic giving where all they want to do is just give, gift themselves a warm glow by making that decision to give in the first place, or just give because they want to appear wealthy and generous to their peers. As a fundraiser, if you can tap in to these three theories of giving to motivate your supporters, you’re bound to succeed.

Behavioural science identifies a range of factors that influence donations, and can help fundraisers to encourage people to give and keep on giving. And it’s not just the charities themselves that benefit – It’s the donors too! Research has shown that spending money on others makes us feel happier, and giving to others can make us healthier. Now if that’s not win-win I don’t know what is.

The Psychology

Psychological insights focus mostly on altruism as a motive for giving, specifically in terms of empathy-induced altruism. Philanthropic Psychology offers insight on a donors motives for giving, and their journey to doing so.

A potential donor must first have the ability and motivation to give. Once they have this motivation, they set out to find a cause they can identify with. It’s at this point that fundraisers must be able to make their cause or charity stand out and offer effective solutions that align with potential donors values.

Empathy-induced altruism might sound straight forward, but it’s actually more complicated than it seems and throws up many philosophical questions.

Some would argue that pure altruism doesn’t actually exist – The pleasure that we feel as discussed above from carrying out an altruistic act, actually nullifies the selfless nature of that act. Can it be altruistic and selfless if the act of giving to charity also benefits us by making us feel good? That’s the million dollar question.

Have you seen that Friends episode where the gang discuss this exact thing? Phoebe is trying to prove that a selfless act exists, while Joey argues that there is no act that is completely selfless.

What does remain true however, is that if a person feels empathy towards someone, they will feel compelled to help them, whether or not it benefits them (empathy-induced altruism).

Whether or not you believe that an act can be purely altruistic or selfless, it can still help charities motivate people to give to their cause. As a fundraiser, if you can target that ‘good feeling’ that people get from giving, then more people are likely to give.

So where does one start? The first step to getting a donation is asking for it. If done in the right way, asking for a donation and then continuing to ask for more, can be very successful in gaining donations.

We’ve all had those door-knockers who call at 8.30pm – I doubt very much whether they see much success, but there is an art to the asking and this relies on some specific strategies.


Personal stories of people that have benefitted from the charities work are often used. Highly emotive appeals and pleas are also commonplace, although the public are going off these kinds of ask, possibly as they evoke guilty or uncomfortable feelings prior to the good feeling you get post-giving.

Heart over Head

Motives are layered as people are complex. Fundamentally, it’s the heart that you need to sell to first, but once the heart is won over, the head wants to know facts and figures and see the outcomes of how donations have been used for good. To appeal to someone’s heart, the story is more motivating if a specific beneficiary is shown rather than details of a large scale problem. Once an individual is identified and you’ve ignited the empathy in a potential donor, you can then provide more details through statistics.


A person needs to be able to trust the organisation they are donating to. Appeals could communicate why their charity is valued by other people, and how people have benefited from the work their organisation has done.


A donor is easily dissuaded by not receiving a thank you for their generosity. If a donor is bombarded with requests for further donations, full of jargon rather than thanks with the subtle implication that their initial donation wasn’t enough, then they will be unlikely to donate again. If instead, they are thanked for their donation and shown just what their money has gone towards, they will feel more motivated to donate again. Every donation is a gift, and when have you ever not said thank you for something you’ve been given?


People like to feel that they have built a relationship with you, and that what they add to that relationship is of value. If a charity can receive an initial donation and turn that into an ongoing relationship of giving, that donor is likely to be loyal to your charity for years to come, despite recessions or times of hardship. A way to do this is to personalise any communication with them – Ring and thank them for their donation before asking for more, or write / email them with topics of interest, tailored specifically to them. Make them feel valued and increase that positive feeling they get from donating to you. Appreciate them and show how grateful you are that they picked you over the hundreds of other charities they could have picked.

Philosophically speaking, it might be unclear as to whether purely altruistic giving (even if anonymous or mandatory) actually exists. But despite this, brain science has showed us that theories of giving have been found to activate our brains pleasure centres and philanthropic psychology shows us that empathy induced altruism helps motivate us to give and can aid strategies for fundraising and boosting donations.

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