Why charities should speak differently to rich and poor

Alice G. Walton | Mar 08, 2017

Sections Behavioral Science

Collections Philanthropy

What moves people to donate depends on their income, research suggests. Wealthier and less-wealthy people respond differently to appeals.

To study this effect, University of British Columbia’s Elizabeth W. Dunn and PhD candidate Ashley V. Whillans and Chicago Booth’s Eugene M. Caruso collaborated with The Life You Can Save, an organization that raises money for charities that fight extreme poverty. They asked visitors to the organization’s website to fill out a survey in exchange for a free book.

Then they presented one of two ads. One spoke to a person’s sense of agency (or autonomy): “The Life You Can Save spreads knowledge of what each person can do individually to reduce poverty,” it read. The other inspired a sense of community: “The Life you Can Save spreads knowledge of what all of us can do together to reduce poverty.”

How much a person gives away may have less to do with any intrinsic effect of wealth than with their motivation, and how you tap into it.

Finally, the researchers gave participants the option of clicking, or skipping, a link to donate to the charity.

People with higher incomes clicked the Donate button more often if they’d been presented with the agency-focused ad, whereas people with lower incomes responded more to the community-based message.

The researchers observe the same pattern in people gathered from public locations and paid $10 to participate in the study. These participants viewed the two versions of the ads and were asked if they’d like to donate any of the money they’d been paid. Again, those with higher incomes tended to respond more after seeing a message that stressed the importance of agency, while those with lower incomes tended to respond more to the ad that focused on community.

The results help explain others’ conflicting earlier findings on philanthropic behavior. A 2015 study suggests that the more money people make, the more they give away, while a 2010 study finds the opposite. The latest findings suggest that how much a person gives away may have less to do with any intrinsic effect of wealth than with their motivation, and how you tap into it. “Rather than reflecting an inherent failure of wealthier people to exhibit compassion toward other people,” the researchers write, “this pattern may reflect a motivational conflict that can be readily overcome by altering the typical nature of charitable giving.” 

Why would wealthy people be more motivated by a pitch that invokes their sense of agency? It may have to do with self-concept, the researchers suggest: wealthy people tend to develop a sense of self that’s strongly related to autonomy, whereas people with lower incomes tend to have a more community-based sense of self. Moving up the income ladder fosters one’s feelings of self-reliance, and weakens feelings of community reliance. “As such, the motivation to achieve personal success is often in conflict with the motivation to value one’s community and to help other people,” write Whillans, Caruso, and Dunn.

Charitable organizations may want to make use of the phenomenon as they design their campaigns. For wealthier patrons, charities might stress how much an individual can make a difference in other people’s lives—and stress the communal element for others.