Through an agreement with the Stanford Social Innovation Review, PND is pleased to be able to offer a series of articles and profiles related to the "business" of improving society.

The Motivations Behind Giving

The Motivations Behind Giving

Recent research indicates that people with the most money often are the least generous with it. But is there a way of motivating the wealthy to donate more to charity? Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, suggests that we consider using their self-perception in charitable appeals.

"The way that individuals think about themselves and their relationship to society shapes their charitable giving preferences," says Whillans. "Wealthy individuals who see their wealth as more situationally caused — they recognize the role of education, family, or government in their own financial success — are more generous than wealthy individuals who tend to think of their financial success as based on their own hard work."

Initially Whillans wanted to leverage that insight to encourage charitable giving in wealthy individuals, but she found that it was difficult to change the way that wealthy people thought about themselves. "If people believed that their financial success was a product of their own hard work, our studies showed that it was not possible to change their minds," she says.

So Whillans decided to test a new hypothesis: A charitable appeal that addressed the agency of the individual, rather than the good he could do for others, would elicit the largest donations from wealthy donors. While the rich have more control over their everyday lives, she reasoned, less wealthy individuals have to form and maintain relationships with others to cope with everyday demands. Thus, wealthier people tend to be more "agentic" — i.e., they have a more individualistic mindset — than less wealthy people, who are more "communal" and thus more closely attuned to the needs and goals of others in the community.

The problem then lies in the fundamental nature of giving. "Charitable giving can, under some circumstances, provide something of a mismatch between the agentic goals of individuals who have more money and the fundamental nature of charity, which is for the benefit of others," says Whillans. So charitable appeals that emphasize agency (the pursuit of personal goals) should elicit a greater response from wealthy individuals than appeals that emphasize communion (the pursuit of shared goals).

To test her hypothesis, Whillans conducted a naturalistic field experiment as part of an annual fundraising campaign at an elite business school. The roughly twelve thousand study participants were mostly middle-aged, male, and relatively wealthy. (Whillans used previous donation history and zip code as a proxy for wealth.) During the campaign, participants received two e-mails and a letter with either agentic or communal messages prompting them to donate. The communal appeal contained text that read, in part, "Sometimes, one community needs to come forward and support a common goal," while the agentic appeal read, "Sometimes, one person needs to come forward and take individual action."

Of the 4.1 percent of alumni who ended up donating money to the school, those who viewed the agentic appeal donated more — $150 more, on average — than those who received the communal appeal. People who lived in the wealthiest zip codes, and those who had given the most during previous annual fund campaigns, donated the most money. However, there was no difference in the efficacy of the appeals on people's decision to donate. "It's hard to move that number in this context, as people who are going to give are typically people who have already given," Whillans says.

While these insights are valuable, a broader lesson is at play. A lot of behavioral science literature is devoted to methods of motivating people to make good decisions by appealing to positive outcomes. But Whillans suggests looking for more effective messages. "Telling teenagers to 'eat healthy foods for good health!' is clearly not working," she says. But tweaking the messaging by appealing to other factors such as autonomy — for example, telling teens that that junk-food companies are trying to manipulate them — can be much more effective in motivating them to eat turnips instead of Twinkies.

"I imagine this is a lesson that holds for mobilizing any number of behaviors, like voting or going green," says Michael Kraus, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Yale University. "This work suggests that you need to appeal to who people are and what they care about if you want to unlock prosocial behavior."

Adrienne Day has written for The New York Times, Nautilus, New York, and O, the Oprah Magazine, among other publications. She also is a contributing editor at Demand, a publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.