People pick charities based on life experiences

  • Deborah Condon

Despite people's widespread beliefs that charities exist primarily to help the needy, the majority of donors tend to support organisations that promote their own preferences, help people they feel some affinity with and support causes that relate to their own life experiences, the results of a new study indicate.

According to the findings, most people also base decisions on their perception of which charities are competent, e.g. charities that are ‘well-run', ‘efficient' and with ‘low overheads'. They also choose charities which they think will have the biggest impact or get the biggest 'bang for their buck'.

UK researchers carried out in-depth interviews with 60 committed donors and found that people are motivated by a desire to ‘personally make a difference' and are keen to avoid their donations becoming a substitute for government spending.

The study also found that:

-Donors find it difficult to make choices between the vast number of potential beneficiaries. The overwhelming amount of choice makes it impossible to rationally assess all possible alternative destinations for donations.

- Donors' personal backgrounds are a key criteria behind gifts. People draw on their personal and professional experiences and use their 'philanthropic autobiographies' to shape their giving decisions.

-Donors create their own classifications and 'mental maps' to try and cope with the complexity of the charity sector, for example, making binary distinctions between 'animal' and 'people' charities, or automatically excluding certain types of causes.

-Donors often base their judgements on how efficiently charities spend their money by evaluating the quantity and quality of direct mail appeals, rather than by accessing information such as annual reports and accounts.

Prior to this study, more attention was paid to questions concerning how many donors give, how much they give, what sorts of people give and why people give, but there was little attention paid to the specific question of how donors choose which charities to support.

"Donors retain an expectation that charities exist to serve the needy, yet in reality their own giving decisions are driven by many non-needs-based factors. Given the voluntary nature of charitable activity these findings are not actually that surprising, as the freedom to support things that people care most deeply about is what differentiates charitable giving from paying tax," explained researcher, Dr Beth Breeze of the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy in the UK.

She added that donors value the control they have over their charitable giving decisions and expect to distribute their money according to their judgements about what is important and worthwhile.


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