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Does the Theory of Planned Behavior Apply to Charitable Giving?

(April 2005) Does the Theory of Planned Behavior Apply to Charitable Giving?  That is the question William F. Bartolini attempted to answer in his research project Prospective Donors' Cognitive and Emotive Processing of Charitable Gifts Requests conducted with the financial support of the Association of Fundraising Professional's Research Council.

The main goals for this study were twofold: (a) to test the application of the theory of planned behavior (TPB) to the processing of requests for charitable gifts and (b) to test an extension of the model through the inclusion of emotional involvement.  The TPB has been used effectively to predict similar prosocial behaviors such as donating body organs, giving blood, or volunteering time, but it has not been applied to the giving of charitable gifts.

The TPB posits that people consider their (a) attitude toward the behavior, (b) subjective norms, or perceptions of others' reactions to their engaging in the behavior, and (c) perceived behavioral control, or the ability of the individual to engage in the behavior, before creating an intention to engage in the behavior and actually implementing the behavior

Methodology:  Subjects were randomly assigned to one of three groups to view three, 3½-minute fundraising videos from three different nonprofit organizations.  The messages were drawn from a field of 50 submitted by Cleveland AFP members and production houses. Ten messages were deemed suitable and were tested by focus groups to reflect different appeals and evoke emotions and cognitions.  Each group saw the three messages in a different order. After seeing each message, subjects' emotions, attitudes, subjective norms, perceived behavioral control, and intentions were measured. 

Findings:  First, among the three attitudinal measures towards (a) making a gift, (b) philanthropy, and (c) the organization, only attitude toward the gift was found to explain a significant portion of behavioral intention.  Second, among the three measures of subjective norms in the study-social norms, or how important others are perceived to judge the possible behavior; moral norms, or the personal responsibility to help; and descriptive norms, or knowledge of others engaging in the behavior-social norms and moral norms conceptually were components of subjective norms. Third, perceived behavioral control-or ability to accomplish the behavior-contributed to behavioral intention.  Fourth, behavioral intention was not related to actual behavior, nor were attitudes or perceived behavioral control related to behavior. 

Implications for Fundraisers:  The TPB model clearly delineates those cognitive variables that impact the development of an intention to make a gift: attitude toward making the gift, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control.  Fundraisers should assess the prospective donor's cognitions on the three variables and adjust fundraising messages appropriately.  Clearly ask about the prospective donor's attitude toward making a gift and develop strategies to change the prospective donor's attitude.  A similar process of assessing and adjusting strategies would be appropriate for the prospective donor's normative values and ability to accomplish the behavior as well.  In short, development officers should assess an individual's attitude toward making a gift and provide clear, unambiguous information reinforcing (a) the importance of gift giving, (b) that others are making gifts, (c) that one has an obligation to assist, and (d) the affordability of the gift.

This research demonstrates that perceived behavioral control may be of second most importance to the target's attitude, and that subjective norms is third most important.  However, because importance varies by situation, fundraisers should assess importance and provide strategic messages which are influential to the order of the prospective donor's decision-making process.  In essence, those making altruistic requests should focus on an individual's attitude toward giving as most important in the decision process, followed by making the gift affordable (perceived behavioral control) or information about how others will feel about their making the gift (subjective norm), depending on which is most important to the prospective donor.

Second, this model suggests that receiving a pledge of support (a behavioral intention) may not lead to receipt of an actual gift.  This study did not find that behavioral intention (pledges) directly affect behavior (making the gift).  Therefore, those making altruistic requests should seek to help targets visualize actually implementing the altruistic request as a way to strengthen the behavioral intention-behavior relationship.

Third, this research shows that fundraisers should be aware of the emotions generated by the fundraising message.  Attempt to evoke emotions useful to the cause and minimize emotions that may distract from development of a positive attitude toward making a gift.  For instance, compassion and happiness were found to affect positively the respondents' attitudes, which in turn impacted behavioral intention.  These and other emotions exhibiting a positive influence on attitude should be encouraged.  In contrast, anger, sadness, contented, and puzzlement negatively affected attitude.  These and similar emotions should be minimized as much as possible in fundraising messages.

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