Who Gives and Why


Who Gives And Why

In this chapter, we examined the demographic and socio-economic characteristics of American donors, described key motives for giving, explained the individual giving model and other alternative models of giving, and applied these models to the design of fundraising communications.


Who Gives

A large majority of American citizens donate money to charity. However, not everybody gives the same amount to the same types of charities over the same period of time. Therefore, to answer the question who gives means to provide a profile of American donors. Many survey datasets exist to measure who gives in American (and around the world). A collection of these datasets can be found at the Science of Generosity Project at the University of Notre Dame. In particular, you may find the following resources useful.

Indiana University Center on Philanthropy Panel Study (COPPS) 

The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University conducts the Center on Philanthropy Panel Study (COPPS) in conjunction with the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research’s Panel Study of Income Dynamics. This study aims to follow the same families philanthropic behaviors throughout their lives. The Panel Study of Income Dynamics has surveyed the same 8,000 households since 1968. The philanthropy component was conducted in 2001, 2003, 2005 and 2007. The Center aims to continue this study every two years pending funding. The COPPS dataset is likely to become the most widely used and most reputable dataset for academics and practitioners alike in the coming year. As mentioned in our introductory chapter, this study, to our knowledge, is the only study of its kind in the world, tracking the giving behavior of different generations of Americans. The data, combined with all other available survey information from the same households, has been made available through the

General Social Survey

Over time it will provide researchers an unprecedented opportunity to deeply understand donor behavior.

Independent Sector Giving and Volunteering in the United States Survey

Independent Sector’s Giving and Volunteering series is one of its Signature Series that measures the giving and volunteering habits of Americans. It is based on national surveys of thousands of adults. This survey was conducted in 1988, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1999 and 2001. These six waves of surveys did not measure the same individuals. Therefore, it is not a panel or longitudinal dataset in the same way as COPPS. Unfortunately, the Giving and Volunteering survey was discontinued after Independent Sector shut down its operation in research. The complete

Giving and Volunteering survey datasets from all years are now made freely available.

Users in the U.K. will find the National Council for Voluntary Organizations (NCVO) website contains a wealth of information on giving in the U.K, based on a regular survey of members of the public enquiring about their giving habits. The NCVO team led by Karl Wilding has recently begun to analyze sector income using data supplied by Guidestar U.K. In addition, NCVO routinely provides an excellent analysis of trends in the sector and a series of occasional reports on specific issues related to giving. Publications can be downloaded or purchased from their website.

In Australia, the Australian government commissioned a detailed study of Giving in Australia in 2004. The work was exceptionally detailed involving surveys of individual donors, corporate donors and Australian nonprofits. Findings can be accessed online from the Office of the Prime Minister.

In Korea can access information on giving from the Beautiful Foundation.

We will continue to add data sources from other countries as these become available.



Self Interest Versus Altruism

The debate about whether giving is altruistic or self-interested is as long-lived as the act of giving itself. Studying altruism scientifically however, is a very recent phenomenon. Several research centers established in a multi-disciplinary environment on University campuses have contributed to this debate. The list below is a selection of these research centers:

The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love

The institute for research on unlimited love was founded in June of 2001 in Case Western Reserve University. It was and has been funded by the John Templeton Foundation. During the first stage of its development (2001-2008), the institute funded 60 scientific studies on the topic of love. The results of these studies were published in a book titled Why Good Things Happen to Good People: How to Live a Longer, Healthier, Happier life by the Simple Act of Giving.

The Science of Generosity Project

The science of generosity project is designed to facilitate the scientific study of generosity. It investigates the sources, origins and causes of generosity, the manifestations and expressions of generosity and the consequences of generosity for both donors and recipients. The projects funded by this project use scientific methods to investigate the causal factors that lead to generosity and the causal consequences of generous practices. You may find the discussions on generosity informative to understand donors’ motivations.

Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development

The Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts University leads a research project on “The Role of Spiritual Development in Growth of Purpose, Generosity and Psychological Health in Adolescence”. This project aims to define what it means for adolescents to develop spiritually and positively. Generosity is one major element of this development process. This is a good resource to obtain information about how generosity is defined, measured and developed in youth populations.


Defining and Modeling Donor Behavior

Whenever fundraisers think about ways to facilitate giving behavior, giving needs to be defined in meaningful and specific ways. This means the following questions need to be answered by the description of the giving act: who, where, when, how, how much, to whom/what and what the context is.

After the giving behavior is specified, we then move onto understanding the psychological mechanisms that lead to the execution of such an act.

First, external stimuli need to be attended to and interpreted. The following resource will provide you with examples of advertisements designed to attract sufficient attention and facilitate favorable interpretations.

The Advertising Educational Foundation

The Advertising Education Foundation provides educational content “to enrich the understanding of advertising and to expand and elevate the advertising discourse.” You will find an abundance of freely available cases on past advertising campaigns conducted by nonprofit organizations as well as award winning advertisements from all industries. Many principles that we discussed in the textbook about attention and perception are adopted in these ads.

Second, favorable interpretations do not only come from our brain, they also come from our heart. The role of emotion in shaping people’s decisions has been recognized and examined in the past several decades by several prominent research laboratories and centers. We provide you with a few examples here.

Emotion and Decision Making Group at the Kennedy School at Harvard University

The Emotion and Decision Making Group directed by Professor Jennifer Lerner is one of the most prominent research laboratories in the country that focuses on studying the role of emotion in decision-making. Professor Lerner’s research is developed from the classic cognitive dissonance theory we described in the textbook. You will find the latest research trends and how emotion influences charitable, public and purchasing behavior from this website.

Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California

The Brain and Creativity Institute was founded in 2006 to investigate how people perceive, interpret and shape their own existence using neuro-scientific methods. One of the key questions being investigated in this institute is how emotion, or the lack of emotion may influence decision making by studying brain disorders (from stroke and head injury to Alzheimer’s disease and mood disorders). Insights gained from this lab will paint a picture of how people make decisions without emotion, and thus give you a unique perspective on how emotion is a crucial part of our daily decision making process.

Third, after people interpret the information they receive from the external world by comparing it to their intended motivations and goals and the knowledge they stored in their memory, they form attitudes towards objectives, people and actions. These comparisons with goals and these formed attitudes, however, are not all explicit. People may or may not be aware of them. The following resources provide you with the latest tests and research on what implicit attitudes you may have and how implicit goals may influence people’s actions.

Implicit Association Test

You will find some demonstrations of the implicit association test here to figure out what implicit attitudes you might have towards certain social groups. For example, you might find that you implicitly favor people who are aged 65 or older, over people who are aged 20-30. Such attitude is implicit, because you are not aware of it until after you see the test results. Becoming aware of these implicit associations that you or your stakeholder group may have, may help you avoid any tendencies that might be harmful in your communications with your stakeholders and sharpen your fundraising messages.

The ACME Lab

The Automaticity in Cognition, Motivation and Evaluation Lab at the psychology department at Yale University focuses their research effort on how people may think, feel and behave in ways without their own conscious intention. Many goals, for example are set, implemented and achieved automatically. You will find more related research at Professor Tanya L. Chartrand’s and Professor Dan Ariely’s website from Duke University.

Finally, decisions need to be made before people carry out their giving actions. You may find the following resources useful in helping you obtain the most up-to-date information on the latest academic insights on how we humans make decisions.

The Society for Judgment and Decision Making

The society for judgment and decision making is an interdisciplinary academic organization founded by psychologists, economists, organizational researchers, decision analysts and other decision researchers. Through its research resources page, you will have access to all major research associations, laboratories, centers, institutions and web sources on the topic of how people make decisions.

The Society for NeuroEconomics 

The Society for NeuroEconomics is a society of academic researchers who are specialized in investigating the neural mechanisms of decision making. They provide the most current and up-to-date findings and insights into how people make decisions. You will find a list of all the major research labs around the world through its Links page. This includes labs at the California Institute of Technology, Duke University, George Mason University, as well as University College London, University of Zurich and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. You may locate the research lab that is closest to your geographic area to get updated information on what the latest trends are in how scientists understand how people make decisions, including charitable giving decisions.



File Downloads

Gift Giving Literature Review (pdf)

Breeze B (2010) How Donors Choose Charities, University of Kent.


Recommended Reading


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Test your knowledge with our Quiz: Who Gives and Why

If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.

Mother Teresa