Social comparisons influence our reasons for charitable giving

Ann Schlosser
Ann Schlosser

Why do we give to charitable organizations and causes?

According to new research by Ann Schlosser at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, our motivations for philanthropic giving depend on how we feel we’re faring compared to others.

Forget about keeping up with the Joneses. Are you doing better or worse?

Schlosser finds that when people perceive that they are better off in some way—wealthier, healthier, more popular, better educated, to name just a few of the possibilities—compared to a benchmark, they are more likely to give purely for the benefit of others. But when people feel comparably worse off in some way, any charitable giving tends to be tied to self-interest.

“We find that people feeling relatively better off are most likely to view giving as an expression of altruistic values such as giving back and being a better person,” says Schlosser, a professor of marketing at Foster. “On the other hand, those feeling worse off are most likely to give for more egoistic and competitive reasons.”

Comparative degree

The study grew out of an investigation into what makes a philanthropic appeal effective. The majority of real-world appeals attempt to engage our altruistic natures: give to help those less fortunate.

But Schlosser and co-author Eric Levy of the University of Cambridge wanted to find out what role the context of comparison might play in our decisions to give.

They designed several experiments to establish the direction of social comparison, and then tested the likelihood of participants to give their time or money to charitable organizations using different kinds of appeals.

These studies triggered social comparisons in a variety of domains: wealth, health, social standing, education, even creativity. In every instance, feeling relatively better off led to an increased willingness to give for altruistic reasons. But feeling relatively worse off led to giving—if at all—only to charitable causes that appeal to self-interests.

So, for example, those feeling fortunate would be more likely to write a check to a cancer research institute that promises to “save lives,” while those feeling less fortunate might only support that cancer institute if it promises to “save your life.”

Additional studies that don’t appear in the paper confirm the same outcome when people compare their current status to their past. In other words, feeling better off today than you did yesterday is likely to spur altruistic giving.

Targeted appeals 

The study, Schlosser says, should inform managers of non-profit organizations as they seek to craft the most effective appeals for charitable giving. Better understanding what motivates prospective donors could allow them to develop more targeted messages.

“Depending on whether prospective donors are feeling generally better or worse off than others (or themselves in the past),” she says, “charitable organizations should craft appeals to emphasize the benefits to others or to oneself, respectively.”

Of course, this is easier said than done. Whether we feel comparatively better or worse is a matter of perception. This is why even a millionaire might feel like a failure relative to her business school classmates or to herself when she was awarded that huge bonus a year ago.

And, as the study demonstrates, the most important comparison is the one that you care about at the moment you’re making a philanthropic decision. It’s not always about money.

But Schlosser suggests the study offers some realistic strategies for non-profits. On the macroeconomic level, organizations can tailor their appeals to a general public sentiment. She and Levy find that the aggregate direction of comparison, revealed in measures such as the University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment Index, is a better predictor of charitable giving than GDP, disposable income, expected interest rate changes and expected price change.

And media placement can also make a big difference. For instance, any kind of appeal for giving that will help others is more likely to be effective if it appears next to an article on, say, poverty in Africa (making readers feel fortunate by comparison).

“Context,” says Schlosser, “is critical to the success of a charitable appeal.”

Helping Others or Oneself: How Direction of Comparison Affects Charitable Intentions” is published in the current issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology.