Science Unlocks the Secrets of Donor Behavior


Sometimes appeals for money work, and sometimes they don’t; that much is understood by fundraisers. But science is beginning to reveal why, says John List of the University of Chicago and leader of the Science of Philanthropy Initiative, supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

List is one of a growing number of economists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, and other researchers casting light on what is known and not known about donors and why they respond to philanthropic requests. A recent issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy carried a front cover story, β€œScience Unlocks the Secrets of Giving,” about how investigations into charitable fundraising have now developed consistent and well-tested findings. The downside is that they are often not well understood by the nonprofits who depend upon giving. “Philanthropy is a very important part of our economy, yet charities are very inefficient,” List told The Chronicle of Philanthropy. “They could learn more about what works to raise more money.”

A crucial issue is that donors tend to give based upon emotion, in particular for the warm glow of so-called “impure altruism”β€”the feeling of satisfaction gained by the individual contribution as opposed to the greater end result. However, this fact is frequently unacknowledged by the charities being supported. For example, bridging the feelings gap between donors and recipients is important: “Donors gave more rapidly to recipients who narrated a story of personal crisis and specified a concrete need that, if fulfilled, would allow them to achieve a short-term goal,” List explained.

Another good strategy is to think carefully about how donors can be encouraged to give. “Our work with charities shows repeatedly that incentives like tax benefits and matching-gift challenges matter to donors,” remarked List. Conversely, trying to entice one-time givers who haven’t given in many years seems mostly to be a waste of effort. Trinkets and tokens as a gesture of thanks for giving tend not to make an impact either.

List stressed that there are still many questions to pursue in the science of philanthropy, particularly in relation to the impact of diverse contextual conditions. Other issues relate to donor self-perception and how individuals are affected by philanthropic requests. “These are big questions with a big stake for society,” List concluded. “We look forward to bringing scholars and nonprofits together to find answers that are backed up by science, not just received wisdom.”