An In-Depth Guide to Why People Give: 6 Lessons to Help Your Nonprofit Raise Cash

Let me guess…

Your feel like you could attract so much more money to your cause if only you could only find that special, super-secret reason people give to you.

After rooting around a blog or two, you find that Guru 1 says people only give because their friends do, while Guru 2 stresses that people give out of a sense of duty.

Who do you believe amid all the noise?

I’ve made it simple for you by looking at a ton of research about why people give to wrap everything up in a very neat bow.

After reading the post, you’ll get a solid sense about the impulse for charity and what to pay attention to when writing your fundraising content so that it drives your mission they way it’s supposed to.

People give for all sorts of reasons

If you do a quick online search, you’ll indeed find give stock answers about why donors get the cash out for a cause:

1. I feel fortunate and I want to give back
2. I want to look generous to other people
3. It’s the right thing to do
4. I want a tax deduction

In his book How to Write Successful Fundraising Appeals, Mal Warwick in fact lists 25 reasons that people give, and these range from “people give because they are asked” to “people give because it’s a duty.”

Wwhat does this mean for you?

For your fundraising, the idea is that there is no one single button to push.

Perhaps that does complicate the issue, but think of it as good news: you have a ton of possibilities at your disposal!

Giving has costs and benefits

Any type of giving situation implies some sort of loss for the donor, which they feel through the pain of spending money.

Research by Carnegie Mellon professor George Lowenstein found that “pleasure and pain both play a critical role at the moment a choice is made.

Lowenstein and his team hypothesize that rather than weighing the present good versus the future alternative, people instead try to decide between the immediate pleasure of consumption and the immediate pain of paying for it.”

By extension, when people donate, they (consciously or subconsciously) weigh the value or benefit of the donation against the pain of forking over their moola.

In other words, we’re at the centre of this constant tug of war between the Giving Angel on one shoulder and our inner Scrooge McDuck on the other.

Why people don’t give

So why do people listen to their Scrooge?

If we look to the news, the general reasons wealthy donors don’t give were examined a couple of years ago by the U.S. Trust (as reported here by The New York Times).

These reasons included:

  1. A fear the donation would not be used wisely
  2. No connection to the charity
  3. Fear of being put on a solicitation list

In 2009, M Linda Wastyn from St Ambrose University studied why non-donor alumni did not give back to the university:

  1. The college is too expensive for their children today
  2. Other charities need their donations more
  3. The college experience was a commodity for which they already paid

In The Life You Can Save, Princeton Prof. Peter Singer details the many other reasons people avoid giving more: 1) no identifiable victim; 2) a penchant to give close to home; 3) a feeling of futility; 4) the “bystander effect,” or “diffusion of responsibility,” in which we think other people are taking care of the problem; 5) a sense of fairness, in that we think we’re already doing our fair share; and 6) money itself deadens the need for us to be altruistic.

The growing field of neuroeconomics and behavioral economics paint pictures of human behaviour that don’t always follow the model of rational models of giving.

1.There are unconscious or preconscious factors that influence our decision-making, and we simply don’t have conscious access to these factors.

2. Our conscious minds have a propensity for “confabulation,” which means that we make up stories about why we do things and then believe the lies we tell ourselves.

Yet… we can’t operate willy nilly as though the appeals we write get no response.

But you should make sure these four points stick in your noggin:

People have:

  • General fears about giving
  • Specific objections about giving to your specific organization
  • Psychological barriers to giving
  • Unconscious drivers of giving beyond their conscious control

But there’s more…

Now that you know the general giving obstacles, we can go more in-depth about why people give.

Because all is not lost. Obviously, donors get over these problems all the time and give money to causes they truly care about.

There are six major reasons that people give, and you can incorporate each of them into your content to boost your fundraising.

People Give for Emotional Reasons

Whose heart hasn’t melted at the sight of a long lost puppy looking for a home? Or images of a women being sold to sex traffickers?

While academic experts debate which emotions belong in your appeals, what you simply need to know is that fundraising content needs to have some type of emotion, because we need emotions to make decisions.

Should you prey on negative emotions? Positive ones? High-arousal ones?

In this article from The Guardian, the researchers thought that negative emotions trigger a one-time responses, but that positive emotions are better at creating a connection.

So the emotions you want to trigger may depend on your goals: sadness, anger and fear for more immediate responses to individuals donors that you’re not sure will give again; inspiration, positive vibes, happiness for people who connect with you over the long term.

The Giving Angel indeed gets very high on these emotions.

People Give for Logical Reasons

Ever heard the saying “People buy with emotions and justify with logic?”

Logic, reasoning and “the why” give your prospect a big kick in the mental butt about the benefit of your mission and cause.

When someone is aware of a problem (school dropouts) and understands the benefit of your nonprofit’s solution (better outcomes for society), you give them a very rational reason for giving.

For example, “Every dollar invested in keeping kids in school saves society eight dollars in social assistance programs.”

Of course, the process isn’t that simple, but the idea is that emotions and logic give a one-two punch to your donor’s inner Scrooge.

People Give for Altruistic Reasons

Science again has shown, in contrary to the survival of the fittest model we know so well, that we are actually wired to be generous.

In The Altruistic Brain, Donald Pfaff presents his model for altruistic models and how we are indeed wired to be good.

Aside from the evolutionary theories behind altruisim, “People can pay for this “value” in a variety of ways, including: donating money, contributing their time, giving blood, going through painful bone marrow extraction procedures, and even risking their own lives to rescue others in need.”

A psychologist named Michael Tomasello, who does studies on altruism in children, found that children’s natural ability to help gets more selective as they age and are shaped by social pressures.

What this means is that, despite their fears and doubts, people do have a need to give to others, which means that your nonprofit can be a conduit for that need.

People Give for Selfish Reasons

You’re a nonprofit communicator, so you already know how good it feels about making an impact on the world. You get the helping high every day.

But science has uncovered “a strong link between emotional reactions and helping suggests that charitable behavior is driven by motivations related to feelings,”  (The Science of Giving: Experimental Approaches to the Study of Charity, 162).

In this same book, researchers discussed how giving empirically increases happiness: “Analyses revealed that individuals who devoted more money to prosocial spending reported greater happiness, whereas personal spending was unrelated to happiness.”

But the reason we give isn’t really for emotions, it’s for self-interest.

In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the researchers found that people give when they think it will make them feel better. “They donate, for example, when they feel hope about putting smiles on those expectant and suffering faces. And that hope, or similar feel-good sensations, are driven by the brain’s reward systems.”

While we don’t need science to tell us that giving feels good, we do need to understand that giving to charity boosts happiness, whereas personal spending doesn’t fill the happy train.

People Give for External Social Reasons

Do people give because everyone else is doing it?

Robert Cialdini, an academic and researcher in communications, wrote a book called The Influence of Persuasion, which sets out the mechanics of social proof as a driver of behaviour, because one way we determine what is correct is by finding out what other people think is correct.

In The Why Axis, the authors found what’s called a follow-the-leader effect in fundraising, which means that, in true radio pledge marathon fashion, the closer you are to your goal, the more people will give to get you to that goal.

Crowdfunding, peer-to-peer fundraising and even viral phenomena like the Ice Bucket Challenge operate on the same principle: everyone else is doing it, so I should too.

People Give for Internal–and Often Unconscious–Psychological Reasons

Human social behaviour is governed by so many programs we aren’t even aware of, and again Cialdini is a good source for the main ones that drive our behaviour.

The ones you need to know in particular for your fundraising are:

Reciprocation: People are more likely to give something in return for something else (e.g., for free address labels).

Consistency: Once people make a small commitment, they are more likely to make larger commitments (e.g., a Like on social media before giving a one-time donation).

Liking: The more people like the person asking or a sale, the more likely they are to buy (e.g., the cute guy in the office who comes around to raise money for the raffle will more likely to reach his goal than, say, the scruffy dude in the coffee-stained T-shirt).

Do you really need to know all of the reasons people give?

Yes and no.

No, because simply knowing the psychological aspects of giving won’t necessarily drive your mission.

Yes, because honing in on at least the general reasons people give will make you more likely to persuade them.

You may not be able to tap into all areas at once in every piece of content, but the more you experiment, the more you’ll get results from your fundraising content.

Although you should’t be surprised at the lack of rhyme or reason to why people give, overall, you would do well to resolve to make the reasons people give a priority in your fundraising by:

  1. Honing in on emotions
  2. Appealing to logic
  3. Understanding their fears or objections
  4. Experimenting with reciprocation, consistency, liking and social proof

After that, it’s simply a matter of getting out there and get people to get giving.

Related links:

The Anatomy of Effective Fundraising Content

Nonprofit Content Marketing 101