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Why People Give (and Do Not Give) to Charity

(July 25, 2005) A new study provides insight into why people give and do not give to charity and what organizations can do to convince them to support their programs.

The study, produced by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the National Council for Voluntary Organizations (NCVO), both based in the United Kingdom, is based on presentations by Tom Farsides, M.Sc., Ph.D., and Sally Hibbert, Ph.D.

Hibbert discusses why some people decide to give and others not to give, while Farsides looks at how donors view charitable giving and how organizations can put that knowledge to good use.

Understanding Non-giving Through 'Neutralization'

Hibbert, a senior lecturer in marketing at Nottingham University Business School in Nottingham, England, states that the theory of 'neutralization' can provide insight to charities into why people do not give.

Hibbert argues that most people who do not give may have concerns about trust in charities and how they are approached (i.e. the type of fundraising method involved). However, most people understand that giving is a good thing to do, so how do individuals assuage their self-esteem and guilt when they decide not to give?

Psychologists argue that people use neutralization to 'soften or eliminate the effects on self-esteem and relationships with others when they act different from expected [i.e., not giving].' In a consumer or donor context, there are five possible techniques of neutralization:

  1. Denial of responsibility: 'I don't have enough money to give to charity.'
  2. Denial of injury or benefit: 'My gift won't make any difference' or 'All the charity work that has been done in Africa hasn't made any difference, there are still millions of people starving.'
  3. Denial of victim: 'There is no need for anyone to be homeless; there are plenty of jobs around.'
  4. Condemning the condemners: 'What right do pop stars have to ask us to give? They should give away some of their millions.'
  5. Appeal to higher loyalties: 'My priority is to look after my family ? charity begins at home.'

According to Hibbert, the more people neutralize their feelings about giving, the more likely that it becomes a habit and they are less likely to give in the future. Thus, organizations that can address these possible excuses may be able to convince some individuals who might not normally give to support their fundraising efforts.

Selfishness Versus Altruism

Farsides, a social psychology lecturer at the University of Sussex in Sussex, England, argues that trying to identify the key reasons why someone gives (or not give) is very unlikely to succeed. After all, one individual's motivations for giving and not giving will change throughout his or her lifetime based on age, situation and circumstance.

Charities instead should try to identify relatively stable and widespread motives among existing donors and design fundraising approaches that attract the broadest audience possible.

Farsides boils down the number of possibilities why people give to essentially two: selfish versus altruistic motives. Individuals with the former qualities want something in return for their giving (an 'exchange relationship'), while those with the latter motives prefer communal relationships that benefit the organization.

While both types of motives can lead to giving, Farsides argues that 'individual charities and the charitable sector as a whole would benefit from fostering both altruistic motives and communal relationships.' Charities should strive to foster empathy, commonality and responsibility in their donors and potential donors in order to strengthen ties to the organizations and encourage giving.

About the Study

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), the umbrella body for the voluntary sector in England, is headquartered in London.

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), based in Swindon, England, is an independent organization established by the Royal Charter that funds research and training in social and economic issues.

A copy of the full report is available on the NCVO website.

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