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Financial Planning > Charitable Giving

Donations Surge When 'Everybody's Doing It': Study

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Research has demonstrated a clear link between social norms — behaviors that are common, valued and accepted by others — and charitable giving: When you see someone donate, you yourself are more likely to donate.

Charities that can leverage this insight stand to increase their donations. But what about off-the-radar causes, those relating to women and girls, for instance?

The Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy released a report on Tuesday that explores how social norms influence giving to women’s and girls’ causes.

The research, which was funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, showed that when people believe that others are interested in giving to women’s and girls’ causes, they are more inclined to donate to these causes themselves.

Differences exist in how social norms influence men’s and women’s giving to those causes. According to the report, men’s donations are strongly tied to how they think men and women give to them, whereas women’s giving is strongly tied to how they think other women give.

The report said focusing on the growing popularity of women’s and girls’ causes increases people’s intentions to donate to them, compared with focusing on current levels of giving. This tactic is equally effective for male and female donors, it said.

“This report is just one example of how we can use insights and research methodologies from social psychology to better understand why and how people give,” Patrick Dwyer, assistant professor of philanthropic studies at the Lilly School and lead author of the report, said in a statement.

“Recognizing the social factors that drive donor behavior can help nonprofit organizations unlock more funding, often through small tweaks to strategy and messaging.”

The report’s findings came from a study of some 2,500 respondents on the online survey platform Amazon Mechanical Turk. Respondents, whose average age was 35, all live or lived in the U.S. Fifty-six percent were men, and 44% women.

Fundraising Implications

The report laid out several ways in which practitioners and fundraising professionals can use a social norms approach to generate giving. For one, they can emphasize positive giving trends to organizations or causes that currently lack high social awareness or support.

They can also focus on raising the social visibility of donor populations that tend to give less frequently than others, for example, through direct testimonials or endorsements. Nonprofits that are able to highlight that a diverse range of people are interested in giving could thereby broaden their reach to new donor groups.

Charities can benefit from experimenting with different social norms messages, tailoring them to specific types of donors, issues or causes. And although some donors may be highly motivated to be among the first to donate to a cause, others may be more likely to do so after seeing others give.

Finally, fundraising professionals can consider how social norms affect new forms of charitable giving. For instance, donors’ behaviors on crowdfunding platforms are often quite visible, which can lead to “bandwagon” effects in giving.

“In the age of crowdfunding and Facebook Fundraisers, we are surrounded by examples of how giving inspires more giving,” Debra Mesch, the Eileen Lamb O’Gara Chair in Women’s Philanthropy at the Lilly School, said in the statement.

Mesch noted that organizations could use the findings to think more strategically about how to leverage social norms to engage new and current donors, from highlighting profiles of under-represented donor groups to emphasizing rising giving trends as part of their messaging.

“Women’s and girls’ organizations and fundraisers in general can use this research to take concrete action to increase their fundraising,” she said.


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