Charitable donations – what’s the psychology behind them?

29 August 2014

Cultural Studies | History

Unless you have been living on another planet this week you will have at some point witnessed friends and family dousing themselves in icy water to raise money for ALS (Motor Neurone Disease in the UK) and, increasingly, some other charities. Many of you will have braved the Arctic bath yourselves. When it was revealed in the Independent yesterday that over half of Britons didn’t donate to charity after taking the challenge it got me thinking about what motivates some people to donate to charities and others not to.

Sure, each charity campaign has its own unique set of circumstances, yet we might learn something from looking back to a pioneer of consumer psychoanalytic research, Ernest Dichter. Written in 1955, his memo on "why people give donations?" reveals insights from his Institute for Motivational Research into the psychological stimulators behind charitable giving in American society during the 1950s. The memo was produced for Nationwide Insurance Company, who wanted to develop a donor campaign for their international aid project CARE.




Ernest Dichter's memo on why people donate. Image © Hagley Museum and Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.


In the memo he outlines several ‘forces’ which both impel people to donate and also restrict them from doing so. According to Dichter some of the most important motivations behind charity are ‘anything but admirable’, advising Nationwide not to appeal to those motivations in their campaigning – ‘Such a course would antagonize the very person one is trying to reach’.

The research by the Institute revealed that one of the primary reasons people donate – what Dichter considered an ‘admirable’ one – is an awareness of their relative prosperity; that they are fortunate to be in their position. This creates a sense of well-being and gratitude inspiring a desire to ‘share their abundance and prosperity’. However, he also recognises in this an ‘ill-concealed element of boastfulness’ – people want to show off their wealth and win the approval of others. At its deepest level the study showed that donations were a ‘kind of bribe… inspired by very much the same psychology which led ancient man to make a sacrifice when he had a favour to ask of the gods.’ Indeed, as I read further through the memo many of the ‘admirable’ reasons for donating were matched by a less ‘seemly’ impulse. Whilst donors are capable of putting themselves in the position of others less fortunate, so too can they distance themselves to reinforce their own sense of superiority – ‘the very act of giving is tangible evidence that the donor is not in need of help’.

Dichter goes on to explain how some of the reasons why people don’t donate are as deep seated as why they do donate and that some of these people cannot be influenced by even the most convincing campaigning. In contrast to why people give, the opposite forces dictate why many do not – instead of feeling prosperous, one may be so discouraged by their material status that they find it impossible to justify giving. Equally, if they are wealthy, instead of wanting to display their affluence, they may want to conceal it to avoid unwanted attention. Because of this the Institute recommended those donating to CARE should be able to do so anonymously. This sense of caution may also be expressed through not wanting to appear too generous, lest others take advantage of them in the future.


Ernest Dichter. Image © Hagley Museum and Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Even if individuals want to donate their ‘ignorance’ of how to do so and the embarrassment this causes can be enough to put them off altogether. Additionally, Dichter’s observation that ‘many people… say they do not know to what organization they should give’ echoes that of the Independent’s report nearly 60 years on - 53% of those completing the ice bucket challenge did not know what cause it was supporting.

So whether you have or haven’t, will or won’t donate for this latest campaign it’s interesting to take an introspective moment and try to realise your own motivations for your decisions. Could you teach Dichter something he doesn’t already know? Or perhaps your true motivations are just too embedded in your psyche ever to know!

The memo on "why people give donations?" and thousands of other reports by Dichter are now available in Adam Matthew’s new publication American Consumer Culture, 1935-1965.

About the Author

Tom Derrick

I am the Senior Collections Analyst for academic publisher, Adam Matthew. My role enables me to contribute to all aspects of the project lifecycle, from collating customer feedback to editorial production. I was fortunate enough to work on the re-launch of one of our most successful resources, Empire Online and have been privileged to work on a variety of other projects including Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975.