Why Do People Donate?

Unless you have an unlimited cache of money, no matter how generous and giving you are, you can’t possibly donate to every charity out there. If you’ve donated to charities in the past, then there are probably a variety of factors influencing your beneficence. Maybe you have a personal connection to a certain charity, like The Make a Wish Foundation or The American Diabetes Association. Maybe you allot a given portion of your income to the charities you care about to avoid exceeding your budget. Or maybe you give spontaneously to wherever you feel your contributions are needed most. There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to giving to charity. However much or little you’re able to give and as long as it’s going to a charitable cause, any cause, then that’s an excellent use of your money.

If you’re new to this whole giving thing tough, and you want to make sure your money is going to a good cause and making the biggest impact per dollar, then you may be wondering where to start. I recently came upon an interesting article, “Choosing a Charity: Should You Go With Your Heart or Your Head?” that got me thinking: as the article explains, there are very few resources detailing what charities can actually accomplish with your donation. Sure, each individual charity will give you the big picture of what they’re able to accomplish thanks to their donors, but you will be hard-pressed to find a site that explains, with actual data, what exactly your money will be used for. It may feel like, even though you know your money is being used for good, that it’s going into a void.

That’s why Elie Hassenfeld and his friend Holden Karnofsky created the data-driven nonprofit, GiveWell, that lists charities to give to based on hard evidence of their effectives. This systematic approach to giving appeals to a group of people, mostly finance and technology professionals under the age of 40, that prefer to make data-driven decisions.

For some, however, it isn’t important to them to know exactly how their dollars are being used. All that matters is that their money is going to a good cause. In fact, social science research has found that rational-statistics-based appeals are not a motivating factor for most people.

So it seems that there is a schism in the field of philanthropy in which there are two pools of donors: those who donate with their hearts, and those who donate with their heads However, the group of people giving with their heads is much smaller than those giving with their hearts.

An article from the guardian examines the science behind why people give money to charity and also confirms that when it comes to charitable giving, most of us are ruled by our hearts and not our heads. It states:

“Many people are also aware that they should donate to the causes that have the highest impact, but facts and figures are less attractive than narratives. In a series of experiments, it was found that people are much more responsive to charitable pleas that feature a single, identifiable beneficiary, than they are to statistical information about the scale of the problem being faced.”

Even though research suggests that most people donate from the goodness of their hearts as opposed to thinking it through logically, that is by no means meant to imply that one way of giving is better than another. Perhaps one day, in the form of philanthropic innovators like Hassenfeld and Karnofsky, we’ll be able to find a compromise.