Why We Donate: How Culture Influences Our Charity

By: Jordan Grimmer  |  September 17, 2015

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There is a migration crisis in Europe. War, poverty, and political/religious oppression have driven millions to seek refuge in European countries like Germany, France, and Hungary. Thousands of refugees have risked, even lost their lives trying to enter Europe via dangerous and unsavory smuggling operations. Three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, whose photo you’ve likely seen on the news, was one of those unfortunate casualties.

Thousands more refugees, including families with small children like Aylan, are currently being processed in prison-like environments, with little access to food, hygiene, and medical care. Several non-profit organizations (including some of the charities reviewed on this site) are working to provide relief for these people. Google has offered a 1:1 donation-matching guarantee on the first $5.5 million donated through its online portal. J. K. Rowling has taken to Twitter, urging her fans to join her in donating:

 

After reading all this, at what point did you feel motivated to act, to respond in some way? Why? What if I told you one of the charities was holding a marathon with 100% of the benefits going towards migrant relief? What if I told you that the marathon in question was going to be nationally televised, and that your own mother was participating in that marathon?

To be honest, charities, and the countless of displaced individuals they represent, aren’t as concerned with why you donate as much as that you donate; however, what drives us to willingly give up some of our own hard-earned dollars has been an intense topic of study for social scientists, economists, and authors alike. The reasons why we donate can reveal some of the building blocks behind human motivation, the answer to the million-dollar question: what drives human behavior?

We Donate When We Have to Suffer for It

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a progressive disease that degrades the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease or ALS for short, this disease afflicts at least 20,000 Americans at any given time. And no one really cared or knew about it –

– until this happened:

What started as a simple dare between friends, rapidly became one of the most viral and successful fundraising campaigns in history. In the course of a summer, the #ALSIceBucketChallenge raised over $15 million towards ALS research. Countless YouTube videos of college students, children, celebrities, and even politicians sprang up. Everyone dumping water on themselves, and almost everyone donating money for ALS. But why on earth would dumping a bucket of ice water on your head motivate you to donate money to anyone? Wouldn’t going through something unpleasant have the opposite effect on your desire to give away money?

According to some research, no. In the book “The Science of Giving,” author and researcher Chris Olivola and his team studied the effects of discomfort on charitable donations. In one study featured in the book, two groups of people were given $5 per person, then told they would be able to donate any portion of that money toward what amounted to a charity. One group, however, was given an additional requirement before they could donate: they had to stick their hands in ice-cold water for a full minute before making their decision. Surprisingly, the control group (who didn’t have to stick their hands in the water) gave an average of $3, while the experimental group gave an average of $4.

Something about suffering changes our willingness to share. Maybe for some, it lends perspective, allowing them to empathize in some small, superficial way to the people their dollars are helping. Maybe it creates a contrast of pain – after experiencing something physically unpleasant, donating a few dollars is considerably less painful. Regardless of the mechanics, when we are invited to undergo some kind of discomfort before we can donate, something in our brain’s arousal center fires, and we quickly become a lot more willing.

We Donate When We Know the Individual

For several people, the European Migration Crisis had little weight until this picture surfaced:

In the arms of a Turkish soldier is Aylan Kurdi, the child mentioned at the beginning of this post. His family was fleeing Syria by boat, but by the time the boat had reached the Greek island of Kos, it had sunk, killing 12 refugees, including Aylan. Aylan’s body had washed ashore on a beach in the Turkish town of Bodrum. This photo has engendered all sorts of reactions on social media, from government criticism, to mass demonstrations like this one:

In terms of harsh, objective statistics, Aylan is just one small casualty in a crisis that affects millions, yet, the human face he has brought to the issue has had more impact on the relief effort than any statistic the media has projected thus far. Why? Because when we feel like we know just one afflicted individual, we feel a greater need to help. Think about it, if your wife, sister, or mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer, you would start wearing a lot more pink. If you know someone suffering from something terrible like childhood leukemia and the accompanying chemotherapy, you would shave your head and look into donating to St. Jude’s.

As awful as it may sound, the sheer number of people whose lives have been drastically changed or cut short has little effect when compared with getting to know the story of one individual. Need proof? Within 24 hours of the Aylan Kurdi photos making their way to the public, regular, otherwise uninterested people donated over $275,000 to a single relief group dedicated to rescuing migrants stranded at sea. Whether it’s somebody that we know personally or someone whose story we’ve internalized, something about that one-to-one relationship is crucial to us as humans.

Even when an individual directly asks us to donate, we have the need to say yes. Have you ever been at a checkout stand at the grocery store, and the employee will ask if you’d like to donate a small amount to some charity? If you’re like most people, you hesitate before saying no, or you awkwardly say “yes.” Some researchers believe this comes from a subconscious desire to ward off fate – that if we say “no,” we are somehow increasingly our likelihood of developing the alluded-to affliction, or by saying “yes” we are accumulating good karma. In either case, the direct question makes us feel accountable to one person, and therefore more motivated to act.

We Donate When Someone Else Has Donated

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that famed author J. K. Rowling had not only donated to the European Migration Crisis relief, but had also encouraged her Twitter followers to do the same. How effective do you think her advocacy for the refugees would be if she hadn’t donated, and that fact became known? Now, before you start lighting your torches, let me assure you that Rowling has indeed donated and continues to be one of the most outspoken advocates for refugee relief. But think about your reaction when you considered that she hadn’t donated? Well, just as we’re less likely to donate if nobody we know or nobody we care about has, we’re more likely to donate when we know someone else has.

This concept gets at the idea behind why celebrity endorsements are one of the most convincing marketing tactics used today. We know, deep down, that most celebrities are probably being paid for their endorsement, however there’s no denying the influence celebrities have on our culture. Take the following story from recent news as an example:

Earlier this week, NBA star James Harden was photographed wearing a pair of Air Jordans. Why did this make the news? Because last month, Harden, who had previously been a spokesman for Nike (maker of the Air Jordan tennis shoe), signed a $200 million contract to represent Adidas, one of Nike’s top competitors. So you see the conflict here: a public figure who has publicly declared his support for a widely recognized brand was caught in a candid moment representing that brand’s chief rival:

Did this mistake have any effect? Perhaps not. But when you look at the daily stock projections of the two companies during the day the photo surfaced (September 14, 2015), and the days following, you’ll notice a slight difference between the two:

Nike

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 3.36.34 PM (2) As the news about James Harden’s choice of footwear unfolded, Nike saw a somewhat uninterrupted increase in stock, which peaked midday of September 15th.

Adidas

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 3.36.59 PM (2) Meanwhile, Adidas saw a different result for September 15th, a noticeable drop immediately following the James Harden news, which was then righted on September 16th with the news that Harden would be required to wear Adidas whenever he is in public. Now, this isn’t to suggest that one person’s contract faux pas can account for any significant change in the success of two multi-billion-dollar companies. But let’s be honest: if you’re a huge James Harden fan, aren’t you more inclined to buy Nike instead of Adidas? When people we know, or people who influence us (like celebrities) are donating to a cause, we are so much more likely to do so. It’s the geometric law of transitivity: I trust James Harden. James Harden trusts Nike. I trust Nike. Not to say that buying a Nike shoe is equivalent to donating to charity, but the principle is the same.

The same holds true when it comes to people that we actually know, or people in our immediate vicinity. Remember, the “challenge” portion of the #ALSIceBucketChallenge? It normally comes from someone you know. And many times, you may not even care about the charity in question as much as the person advocating it. You can’t tell me your parents bought all those chocolate bars so your band could go to band camp because they loved the candy bars.

We Donate When It’s Publicized

Economists and social scientists always talk about the seemingly contrasting values of virtue and self-interest. “Virtue” meaning altruism (giving something for nothing), and self-interest meaning giving something to get something. These values are also known as public and private benefit respectively. When it comes to donating to charity, which value wins out? On the surface, it’s public benefit, altruism; you’re literally giving your money with no expectation of compensation. But is that really true? Going back to our example of the #ALSIceBucketChallenge, is there any benefit for the person who dumps a bucket of ice water on himself?

On the outermost level, it’s an opportunity to literally show off to our friends. Despite our best intentions, the genius behind the challenge is the chance to show everyone just how tough, crazy, wimpy, creative, whatever you are. Yes, we get the warm, fuzzy feeling that we are contributing to a righteous cause, but the #ALSIceBucketChallenge wouldn’t have been nearly as successful were it not for its strong social media component. And while you and I probably looked at it as an opportunity to get a few more hits on YouTube and to publicly call out our friends, public figures saw a huge goodwill opportunity. Think of one of your favorite celebrity ice bucket moments. Was it Bill Gates? LeBron James? Don’t get me wrong: both men are major humanitarian advocates, from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to James’s recent scholarship program at the University of Akron. But had the #ALSIceBucketChallenge not been a publicized exercise, the likelihood of their donating to ALS might easily have been affected (though, at this point, who’s to say?).

 

Remember the LiveStrong movement? Those cheaply made yellow rubber bracelets? Before the imminent collapse of Lance Armstrong’s empire of influence, wearing a LiveStrong bracelet was nothing short of a status symbol. Just ask Michael Scott:

So, knowing what you know now, how do you proceed? Do these findings suggest that you will only donate if you get recognition for it? Absolutely not. But they do suggest that the recognition helps. And while you obviously still have the ability to make these decisions yourself, without being directly influenced or asked by a celebrity or someone you know, those interactions do at least get you thinking about donating. In fact, reading this post has probably got you thinking about donating; I can assure that writing it certainly has for me. Sure, you may not need to know the tragic story of one person to know that the European Migration Crisis is a messy and upsetting ordeal to want to donate to its relief, but some images are hard to forget.

My advice? If you do want to donate, take a close, close look at the charity or non-profit you’re sending your money to. One of the most tragic stories to unfold out of any national or international disaster is when good honest people who want to help are duped by false charities who are looking to profit from others’ misfortunes. Perhaps, the various reasons why we donate don’t really even matter – any time you donate to a worthy cause is a good time to do so. The actual motivational factors behind why we donate are far more complex than the reasons laid out in this post, but they could explain why you still probably haven’t donated to your public radio station.

About Jordan Grimmer

Jordan Grimmer is the head content editor and writer at BestCompany.com. He oversees all on-site content production, the BestCompany.com Medium page, as well as his own personal blog. You can follow Jordan on Twitter.

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