What makes people give? - The surprising truth behind philanthropic motivation

Posted June 22, 2014 by Shachar Kariv


Any non-profit worth their salt dedicates a great deal of effort and attention to figuring out exactly what drives an individual to reach into their pockets and contribute to a cause.  It’s the secret sauce of fundraising. 

Some of these motivational instigators are widely known, and capitalized on, but there are a few other insights that shed light on donor behavior, and it’s worth keeping them in mind.

Some commonly recognized motivating factors;

Being asked – It may seem obvious, but one of the main reasons people give is simply by virtue of having been invited to do so.  As they say ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get!’

photo by emutoldCompassion – Tugging on people’s heartstrings is a sure-fire way to encourage potential donors to give.  Finding an angle, or providing information and visuals, that brings to life the suffering of others, plays on people’s emotions and encourages activity.

Recognition – Many donors are motivated by the public thanks and admiration that often comes with donating to a cause.  They might not like to admit it, but everyone likes a pat on the back.

Peer pressure - People are compelled to be a part of what their friends are involved in.  It brings the cause closer to home, and it’s also harder to wheedle one’s way out of giving, when someone you know asks you directly, all puppy-dog-eyes and hand outstretched.

Celebrity endorsement – Celebrities are attractive, rich and powerful.  Everyone wants to be a celebrity.  Or be ‘with’ a celebrity.  By contributing to campaigns that are championed by celebrities, donors feel like they’re more connected to their favorite stars because they’re supporting what they care about.

News coverage + recency – There is something to be said about the volume and frequency of a message when creating a ‘call to action’. Hearing about a specific fundraising campaign whenever a TV or radio is turned on, a newspaper is opened, or a website is loaded, keeps the cause in the minds of potential donors.


However, there are a few factors that, though less widely-recognized, are perhaps even more compelling, when identifying the reasons that make people spring into action, and contribute to a cause.


Pivotal involvement – Any given donor wants to think that his or her contribution was necessary and sufficient for the ultimate success of a fundraising campaign. I.e that the buck stopped with him or her.  By suggesting that each donation is the critical one in meeting the target, non-profits provide each donor with a feeling of absolute requirement and value.

No-risk – By setting up a campaign that guarantees that if the goal is not met in the allotted time, all the donations are returned to the donor, people are more likely to give money, as they are assured that their contribution will be used only for the target purpose or not at all.

Ability to influence others - It turns out that people like to be seen as powerful and influential.  By making the influence that a donor has visible and measurable, they are more likely to work on behalf of the non-profit to gather additional contributions.  Therefore, a contribution from one person can result in untold contributions from their network. 

Transparency - Donors are more likely to give if they know exactly where their money is going and how much of it will get passed along to the cause.

Urgency - When time is running out, individuals feel more pressure to give.  By setting strict deadlines, non-profits can incentivize someone to give, and to give now.

Time of the year – It’s not a sexy reason, and certainly takes the sheen off the gloss of the selfless generosity of ‘the season of giving,’ but people give during the Holiday Season, not only to help those less fortunate, but also to take advantage of the tax benefits.


By taking into account the various reasons that people are motivated to give, and by building campaigns around these factors, a non-profit organization can better their chances of success. 

So, to wrap it up neatly, why not create a Christmas-time, transparent, conditional ‘no-risk’ campaign, where each donor feels that their, and only their, donation will steer the campaign to success, and you’re onto a winner!


About Professor Shachar Kariv

an economist by heart, Deprtment Chair and faculty director of the UC Berkeley Experimental Social Science Laboratory(Xlabx), Sloan fellowship award recipient; NSF Grant recipient. 

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