Shaping philanthropic goals in concrete rather than abstract terms can boost the happiness of a donor or volunteer, while focusing fundraising appeals on the moral values of empathy and benevolence rather than on charity recipients’ responsibility for problems they face can increase the likelihood of a gift, two new studies say.
Concrete acts of kindness
One study, to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, says givers with a specific, concrete agenda, such as trying to make someone smile, experience greater happiness than those pursuing a more abstract goal, such as trying to to make someone “happy.”
The study, “Getting the Most Out of Giving: Concretely Framing a Prosocial Goal Maximizes Happiness,” looks at the types of feelings generated by various good deeds.
Researchers from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, the University of Houston and Harvard Business School recruited 50 participants and gave them a $5 Amazon gift card in exchange either for making someone happy or for making someone smile within 24 hours.
The participants then were asked how they approached their assignment, and how happy it made them.
Regardless of how they approached their goal, participants instructed to elicit a smile reported greater personal happiness than those asked to elicit happiness.
Volunteers who seek “amorphous” goals such as changing the lives of others are bound to experience disappointment and frustration, “making helping a negative rather than a positive influence on givers’ happiness,” the study says. “Encouraging givers to re-frame their prosocial goals in more concrete terms might generally reduce helper burnout.”
And experiencing that “helper’s high” also makes it more likely that a donor or volunteer will give again in the future, it says.
A second study, to be published in October in the Journal of Consumer Research, suggests that donors’ “moral identity” decreases donations when recipients are seen to be responsible for their problems.
The study, “I’m Moral, but I Won’t Help You: The Distinct Roles of Empathy and Justice in Donations,” looks at the distinct impact that moral values of empathy and justice have on people when asked to make donations that benefit others whose choices “have led them to an unfortunate place in life,” say researchers from the University of Texas at San Antonio, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Connecticut.
In four separate projects, the researchers asked for donations to a number of charities benefiting people who donors might believe are responsible for their current situation, such as a community health center that treats people who cannot hold a steady job as a result of drug or alcohol use.
Participants who placed a high level of importance on their own moral identity indicated they were less likely to donate money.
But when asked to recall past immoral behavior of their own, participants could more easily take the perspective of recipients of assistance from the charities, and they felt higher levels of empathy, increasing the likelihood they could make monetary donations.
The study results can help nonprofits “be more cautious when describing the causes and beneficiaries they are supporting,” its authors say in a statement. “Donation appeals should specify or imply low responsibilities of the charity recipients or, alternatively, seek to elicit sympathy to increase donations.”
Rather than “appealing to a broader spectrum of moral values,” they say, “messages should focus on the moral values of empathy and benevolence.”
— Todd Cohen