A Literature Review of Empirical Studies in Philanthropy: Eight Mechanisms That Drive Charitable Giving

By Rene Bekkers and Pamala Wiepking, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, Sept 10 2010

There is now a large academic literature on philanthropy and giving. Organising this literature is no easy matter. But this was the task Bekkers and Wiepking set themselves in their wide-ranging and inter-disciplinary review of research on why people donate money to charitable organisations. The emphasis is on individual giving. There is little in the review covering corporate giving. The review covers around 500 papers and so provides a wealth of material for readers. And, not surprisingly, the density of the review at times overtakes the key themes being developed.

Bekkers and Wiepking distinguish between eight drivers and mechanisms of giving: (a) awareness of need; (b) solicitation; (c) costs and benefits; (d) altruism; (e) reputation; (f) psychological benefits; (g) values; and (h) efficacy.

An awareness of need is the first motivation of giving. Indeed, it can be viewed as the fundamental prerequisite of giving. You don’t give if you don’t perceive a need in the first place. So where does information come from on need and what sort of information is the most important? Information comes in all sorts of forms. First-hand experience of need and prior connections with those who are the beneficiaries of support programs funded by giving is emphasised in the research literature as increasing the subsequent chances of giving.

Solicitations are a second key mechanism of giving. The research evidence suggests that a significant proportion of all giving among members of the public is in response to being solicited to donate—around 85 per cent of giving was linked to solicitation in two studies. While this suggests a rich vein of potential funds to tap, the research evidence points to donor fatigue and diminishing returns and lower average contributions to increased solicitation.

As the authors point out, ‘giving money costs money’. Economic studies suggest that this cost can be reduced by more generous tax treatment of giving. Reducing obstacles to giving will also increase levels of giving. On the flip side, raising benefits to giving will also increase the level of giving although the role of direct benefits is seen to be relatively minor and may be counter-productive in the long term, undermining the role of intrinsic motivations. Benefits to giving come in many different forms including special access to meetings, dinners and events.

Two further mechanisms impacting on giving behaviour are those of altruism, the concern for improving the lot of the final beneficiaries of the giving, and reputation, or the improved social standing of donors in the community.

The reputational effect of giving is the most studied of all drivers of giving. Giving improves social standing while not giving damages reputation. Giving rises the more visible it is; it rises, for example, in telethons when names are being read out and when visible symbols such as a pin, ribbon or wristband are used to signify that giving has taken place.

Social psychologists have studied the psychological benefits of giving in some detail. Neuropsychological studies show that giving activates areas in the brain linked to reward processing. Giving may alleviate feelings of guilt or produce a feeling of doing good, by acting in line with a particular self-image for example. Donors are motivated in their giving by sensing that they will feel good as a consequence of giving. One of the key research findings is that giving is not only the result of altruistic self-image but reinforces it. Giving becomes a self-reinforcing cumulative process.

Individual values are critical in the giving process. Bekkers and Wiepking suggest that ‘philanthropy is a means to reach a desired state of affairs that is closer to one’s view of the “ideal” world’ (p.18). The ideal world in turn depends on one’s value systems. Those who have pro-social values, are less materialistic, who endorse a moral principle of care and who value being devout are more likely to give than others.

Efficacy is the final motivation for giving identified by the authors. Donors who believe that their giving will be effective in achieving the specified goals of the organisation or project they are giving to will be more likely to give.

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