The Psychology of Giving and How to Use It for Fundraising

Have you seen that Friends episode where the gang discuss whether pure altruism actually exists – Is there a good deed that we can do without feeling good about it?

Phoebe is trying to prove that a selfless act exists, while Joey argues that all good deeds are selfish. Phoebe tries various ways of proving Joey wrong, even letting a bee sting her thinking that the bee will look cool in front of his bee friends, without realising that the bee probably died after stinging her.

In the end she thinks she’s come up with the perfect solution – Donating to the telethon that Joey is on. She hates the network in question, but knows that her money will help those in need so she donates her savings. Whilst not feeling particularly chuffed about it, she’s happy that she thinks she’s finally found a selfless good deed – Only to see Joey get on TV for taking the highest donation of the night, making her feel happy!

Some, like Joey, would argue that pure altruism doesn’t actually exist – The pleasure that we feel 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? Well that’s the million dollar question.

But why are we asking this question in the first place? Understanding the psychology behind charitable giving not only gives you an insight into your donors, but can guide the structure of your fundraising campaigns and how you engage those donors with your cause.

Psychological insights focus mostly on altruism as a motive for giving, specifically in terms of empathy-induced altruism. To be altruistic means acting out of concern for another being, even if it costs us something to do so. Looking at the philanthropic psychological insights to giving can shed light on a donors motives for giving, and their journey to doing so.

If a person feels empathy towards someone, they will usually feel compelled to help them, whether or not it benefits them (empathy-induced altruism). They might, like Phoebe, have chosen to donate their savings that they had planned to use for something else (thus, costing themselves something) but feel happy that the money has gone towards helping someone in need, in a situation that they empathised with.

As a fundraiser, if you can target that ‘good feeling’ that people inevitably get from giving, then more people are likely to give. You can appeal to both the ‘selfish’ Joey’s and the ‘altruistic’ Phoebe’s.

So where do you start? Well, firstly a donor needs to have two things:

  • The ability to give (someone could have all the empathy in the world but nothing to give)
  •  The motivation to give (someone could have all the money in the world, but no cause to empathise with)

Assuming that your potential donor’s have both the means and the motivation, all you need to do is give them the opportunity to identify with your cause. This is the crucial point that you as fundraisers must be able to make your cause or charity stand out and offer effective solutions that align with potential donors values.  

There is an art to the asking and thankfully, the psychology behind charitable giving lets us identify some specific strategies to help us.

1. Stories – 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. We’ve all seen the TV adverts you tend to get during daytime television, with children crying in pain and anguish. This possibly evokes more of a guilty or uncomfortable feeling which could result in the potential donor reaching for the remote to switch channels rather than their purse. We’ve spoken about empathy-induced altruism – You want to focus on that ‘good feeling’ donors get after they’ve donated. Seeing children with beaming smiles, sitting in a classroom built from donations could be much more effective than the highly emotive, distressing pleas. Guilt tripping someone into a donation can tarnish that good feeling, and empathy can still be evoked without the anguish.   

2. Heart over Head – People are complex creatures and motives aren’t always straightforward – There are many layers behind a motive to donate. 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, it needs to be personable. The story you tell to your potential donor is more motivating if a specific beneficiary is shown rather than details of a large scale problem. Not only is it more personal, but the ability to actually help seems more plausible than an overwhelming large scale problem. An example of this could be donating £5 to pay for one child’s vaccinations – Seeing one child that could directly benefit from your £5 is potentially more motivating than seeing a hospital full of sick children with preventable diseases. Once an individual is identified and you’ve ignited the empathy in a potential donor, you can then provide more details through statistics.

3. Trust – People are cynical unfortunately – A potential donor needs to be able to trust your organisation in order to make a donation. How do people value your charity? How have people benefitted from the work your organisation has already done? What is at the heart of your mission? What are your goals? Fundraising appeals could directly communicate the answers to these questions to build trust with potential donors.  

4. Gratefulness – We mentioned previously that you need to start by actually asking for donations, and then keep asking. But there’ one very important thing you need to do between receiving a donation and asking for more – Saying thank you! How do your donors know you are grateful? 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. That won’t give them that ‘good feeling’ – You’ve managed to use empathy-induced altruism to your advantage, don’t waste your efforts by losing the chance to renew that feeling in your donors. If instead, they are thanked sincerely for their donation and shown just what their money has gone towards, they will feel that post-giving good feeling and likely be more motivated to donate again. Every single donation is a precious gift, and when have you ever not said thank you for something you’ve been given?

5. Relationships – 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.

Hopefully this has given you something to think about – Both in terms of the psychology of giving and how that impacts the motives behind donors, and how you can link this knowledge to your fundraising campaigns.

What do you think? Do you side with Phoebe and believe that there are selfless good deeds, or do you agree with Joey that all good deeds have an element of selfishness to them? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

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