Conference Focuses on What Motivates Us to Do Good


The science of philanthropy is helping to expand our understanding of why and how people give. And yet, at the second annual conference of the Science of Philanthropy Initiative (SPI) earlier this month, a program supported by the John Templeton Foundation, principal investigator John List made an admission. “As scientists,” he said, “I think we haven’t yet provided the sort of information that practitioners need.”

It’s a knowledge gap not easily filled. Scholars are by nature cautious, seeking carefully calibrated empirical precision. Practitioners, however, live in the experiential messiness of everyday life. The challenge is to translate academic findings into useful information. To that end, these conferences and partnerships are making progress by supporting field experiments that allow researchers to test their theories, while also lending a practical hand to charitable organizations.

For example, conference attendees heard from one such partnership between researchers and a charitable organization that examined how choices presented to potential givers affect their generosity. When donors are asked to choose from a list of charities, how might the size of the list, and the similarity of the charities upon it, impact donors’ decisions? The preliminary findings of the research presented suggest that more choice makes for more generous giving, though it also seems that “choice overload” must set a limit to the correlation. Another partnership explored how “giving games” affect pro-social behavior and attitudes, and enabled those involved to share ideas about how to publish the results.

The conference also explored the link between incentives and philanthropy. Incentives can be monetary, of course, but other research presented at the conference found that small tweaks to the way that individuals interact with a charity or social cause can make a big difference in a person’s willingness to lend support. For example, assurances that overhead costs will be covered by external sources, not prospective gifts, can help to further motivate donations from a concerned individual.

SPI’s goal of translating research into practical information for charitable organizations has grown in the past year. Conference attendance swelled to more than 200 registrants and included 44 lectures from researchers and practitioners; over the last 12 months, the initiative has been able to support 16 faculty projects and 17 Ph.D. students. A third conference is planned for September 2015.