Part 1 of 2: Why don’t people donate a lot more to charity?

By Pete Dyson


Despite the UK’s high position on the World Giving Index in 4th place, each year 30% of people engage in no charitable giving whatsoever. Each month the typical donation is just fourteen pounds[1] and the richest 10% of households actually give three times less than the poorest 10% of household (as a proportion of their income)[2].

This is peculiar, because the self interested case for donating to charity is compelling. On the motivation side, the practice receives a ringing endorsement from all the major religions, studies have tirelessly demonstrated that spending money on others promotes happiness for the giver[3] and the evolutionary mechanics underpinning social cooperation are becoming well established[4]. In fact, for individuals and businesses alike there’s probably no cheaper way to build social capital than to amply and publicly donate to charitable causes. As costly signals go, the act of giving generously beats conspicuous consumption every day of the week. It’s not in the scope of this article to argue conclusively that altruism (helping others at your own expense) is rational, but charitable giving is a nice example of the self-interested motivations that often go unnoticed, probably because cognitive dissonance and a puritan work ethic conditions us to feel uncomfortable.

On the capability side, it’s not like it’s hard to do; anytime and anywhere, whether via an automatic monthly deduction or spontaneously on a whim. If anything, technology has leaped ahead of giving behaviours, making it too easy to complete. Surely the effort-heuristic works against us; ‘if it’s as easy as buying a Coke or paying my Vodaphone bill, it can’t be that effective’. It would take a particularly bold fundraiser to test whether hurdles and obstacles would increase donations. To a behavioural scientist then, the primary question probably is not ‘why do people give’, but rather, ‘why don’t people give more? Why aren’t people giving all the time?

When it comes to generosity, humans take a serious diversion from the rational model. A person’s charitable preferences are unstable, information is limited as donations are often concealed (in size and frequency), the utility/enjoyment of giving is highly contextual and the seemingly arbitrary method of donation (cash, card or otherwise) conditions the amount given.

Econs don’t stand a chance either

This isn’t to say we would even be any better off as Econs. Unfortuntely for the aspiring rationalist, the world isn’t really geared up for considered System 2 decision making. In charitable giving, transparency is limited to the extent that individuals cannot reliably assess how, where and when their donations are being used. The choice of charities varies across time and space, the areas and populations in greatest need keep changing (as crises and catastrophes emerge), and constantly exploiting the network of matched-donations from philanthropists is near enough impossible. So an Econ to be equally befuddled. Whether you approach giving as Homer Simpson or Mr. Spock, both approaches seem to lead inexorably to paralysis, which probably explains the haphazard reality of charitable giving we all experience.

All hope is not lost

Though the image painted is bleak, all hope is not lost. Perhaps it’s time to be more optimistic and indulge in the more pleasurable and constructive discipline of what we could do to reverse the tide and help well intentioned people to give more. Can we establish what factors influence the propensity to give? That’s certainly the ambition of any good behavioural model and Van der Linden (2011)[5] has demonstrated that the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) can account for nearly 70% of the explained variance in charitable intent; with descriptive, prescriptive and moral norms being defining features. These are the common levers of many nudges. At Ogilvy Change we really try to bridge the gap between academic research and the practical realities of communications. In the spirit of generosity, the following five techniques have been selected from the dozens that reside in a database of heuristics, a behavioural toolbox that we use in our Social Behaviour Change Programmes.

Coming up next, Part 2 – Techniques to get people to give; an evidence based approach



[1] CAF: World Giving Index 2015 :

[2] McKenzie and Pharoah (2011) How generous is the UK? Charitable giving in the context of household spending CGAP Briefing Note 7

[3] Brooks, A. C. (2007). Does giving make us prosperous? Journal of Economics and Finance, 31(3), 403–411.

[4] Dunn, Aknin, Norton (2008): “Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness” Science, Vol.319 pp1687- 1688

[5] Sander van der Linden (2011) Charitable Intent: A Moral or Social Construct? A Revised Theory of Planned Behavior Model Curr Psychol (2011) 30:355–374 DOI 0.1007/s12144-011-9122-1



Pete Dyson
As Choice Architect at Ogilvy Change my job involves applying behavioural economics to public and private sector challenges. In the past two years these have ranged from curbing anti-social behaviour, getting workers to wash their hands, increasing online fundraising donations, improving school attendance and testing the extent to which recycling might boost wellbeing.
Pete Dyson
Pete Dyson

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