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Foster School Professor Discusses Charitable Giving

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There’s no doubt that the holiday season is one of the biggest times of the year for charitable giving. That’s why one University of Washington Foster School of Business professor, Ann Schlosser, decided to research why we give to charitable organizations and causes. According to Schlosser, people don’t give because they’re trying to “keep up with the Joneses”—they give depending on how they feel they’re doing compared to others.

“We find that people feeling relatively better off are most likely to view giving as an expression of altruistic values such as giving back and being a better person,” said Schlosser in a research brief. “On the other hand, those feeling worse off are most likely to give for more egoistic and competitive reasons.” Basically, if people feel they are better off in some way—wealthier, healthier, more popular, etc.—compared to a perceived benchmark, then they are more likely to give purely to help others. And the opposite is true. If people feel less than others, charitable giving becomes about self-interest.

Scholsser’s study digs deep into what role context of comparison plays in people’s decisions to give. To discover the answer, Schlosser and her co-author Eric Levy from the University of Cambridge developed several experiments to establish the direction of social comparison. They then looked into how various domains—wealth, health, social standing, education and even creativity—triggered social comparisons and thus giving. What they found is that a “fortunate feeling” person would give to a cancer research institute that promised to “save lives,” but a less fortunate feeling person would only give to the same institute if they promised to “save your life.”

The ultimate goal of the study was to inform nonprofits about how to better craft their messages for the most effective appeals for charitable giving. “Depending on whether prospective donors are feeling generally better or worse off than others (or themselves in the past),” explained Schlosser, “charitable organizations should craft appeals to emphasize the benefits to others or to oneself, respectively. Context is critical to the success of a charitable appeal.”

This post has been republished in its entirety from its original source,