What drives giving to charity?

The drivers of giving – solicitation and awareness of ‘need’

There has been lots of studies over the years on exactly why people give money or time to charities, but I wanted to take a look at some of the main drivers of giving – because if we don’t understand these drivers how as marketers can we possibly hope to influence them?

So, what are the key drivers of giving? Everyone involved in charity marketing will tell you that rule number one in income (or should that be outcome) generation is solicitation – in the charity world if you don’t ask you don’t get! Only a small minority of all donations occurs without some prior solicitation. Actively seeking contributions dramatically increases the number of donation received, not exactly a stunning piece of insight is it really? But you would not believe the number of small and medium size charities that don’t systematically structure a solicitation program. From my experience the primary blocker from developing a good program of ‘asks’ is the cost of asking and the fear of donor perception. Perhaps this is the subject of another post, but asking costs money whether that is via direct mail, door to door, or online. However, if you are to achieve more of your mission and goals you need to engage and motivate donors to provide the financial support necessary.

So if asking for a donation is the primary driver, what’s next? Well you would think awareness of the need has to be right up there? When people become aware of another person in need they are obviously more likely to help than if they were unaware. But ‘need’ is a complex issue to define, studies have shown that donor’s awareness of need increases when they know people who might be potential beneficiaries. This goes some way to explain why donors giving patterns change over their life time and we see a shift towards health and age related causes.

However,  the effects of ‘need’ on giving are diminished by other factors, for example some research has shown that the effect of ‘need’ only works when the beneficiary is dependent on the donor for help, and this can lead to what is known as the ‘bystander effect’ where people think that other who are also aware of the problem should help first. No one can deny the terrible suffering in war torn areas of the world, but this obvious ‘need’ is diminished in the eyes of donors if they somehow perceive the potential beneficiaries are partly to blame for their situation. We sometimes see this objection used to question support for the homeless or to rehabilitate drug users. We also need to be careful we don’t overwhelmed donors with ‘need’ on such a scale that it appears insurmountable. If we are to motivate donors we need to avoid framing the needs of our beneficiaries so it is impossible for donors to possibly see how their contribution can help. In reality the level of actual ‘need’ has only a small impact on the levels of giving. If you look at some of the largest health charities in the US they include organizations for rare diseases like muscular dystrophy (affecting only 6 children in 100,000) and cystic fibrosis (affecting 20 in 100,000).

Next in this series we will look at the ‘costs’ to a donor and the ‘benefits’ a donor receives as a driver of giving


Mar 2013


Shaun Williams

I am Head of Data & Insight for a major UK Charity having worked in the non-profit sector for nearly twenty years. I have a real interest in marketing strategy, innovation, data analysis, customer insight, and behavioural science.

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