By Nick O'Donnell and Bradley Noble

Charitable giving is rapidly evolving. Contributions from foundations and corporations have increased, while more and more dollars from individuals pass through donor-advised funds. Who is giving—and how much—continues to shift. And, in the wake of COVID, even what counts as giving is expanding.

Navigating these changes is critical for non-profits, funders, platforms, and others in the giving space. New research on donor behavior can spark innovations to increase proactive, strategic, and impactful giving. This can mean more funds for more charitable organizations to solve critical social problems around the world.

To support this work across philanthropy, we’re excited to share a resource to help those who work toward social good navigate these changes: an update to our literature review on the behavioral science of how donors give.

In this work, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we examine scholarly research on social norms, shared identity, incentives, framing, and more. Reflecting a parallel emphasis in the field, the literature review pays increased attention to insights on racial and gender equity within giving.

The full review includes many techniques that practitioners can explore to drive donor attention toward organizations that confront social inequities. Here is a selection of the novel studies we encountered:

Icon of a head in profile with a heart inside.

Changing how a charitable appeal is presented to match the recipient’s political beliefs can increase donations. This lab study shows that identifying the values of your audience, and tailoring your message to fit those values, can significantly change how that audience gives. Existing giving patterns are a reflection of fundraising language; tailoring that language can engage audiences who might seem uninterested in supporting organizations that advance racial and gender equity.

Icon of an arrow in the middle of a target and a checkmark.

Specifying the impact of a prospective donation may give people less of an “excuse” not to donate. People often feel guilty for not giving, and will often go out of their way to avoid being asked to give. Research has uncovered other strategies that people use to avoid feeling guilty for not donating. For instance, when people are uncertain about the impact that their donation would have, they use that ambiguity as an excuse not to donate. Making the impact of a donation clearer can reduce this “moral wiggle room” that people give themselves, and thus increase their willingness to give.

Icon of scales of justice, tilted to the right.

Demonstrating that a non-profit is underfunded relative to its peers can increase giving to that organization. Past research on social norms suggests that people tend to act similarly to their peers, so we might expect people to be more likely to donate to non-profits that already receive the most support. However, research has found that, when asked to decide between an NGO that had received lots of funding from previous study participants and an NGO that had received fewer donations, people generally chose the less popular organization. One explanation for this phenomenon is that people value fairness when giving, and generally prefer to spread donations around, rather than concentrate them.

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The studies above represent a small sample of the new and emerging research cataloged in our 2023 updated literature review. While this update is not an exhaustive summary of the available research, it highlights significant contributions and advancements in charitable giving that can be of use to others working in the space. We hope that this review will serve as a primer on the many potential applications of behavioral insights in the philanthropic space, as well as a starting point for future interventions that seek to increase charitable giving, and help donors give more intentionally and impactfully, and ultimately strengthen the problem-solving abilities of non-profits and other charitable organizations.