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Why do people donate to charity?

NEW YORK — Beyond the tax deduction, what motivates people to give money to charity?

With Americans donating hundreds of billions of dollars to causes every year, it’s a question that directly affects nonprofits, and new academic research is trying to offer a clearer answer.

People may have internal or external reasons for behaving charitably, or they may be motivated by some blend of the two. One external incentive to give money is recognition, and charities tap into that by offering cards, gifts, and special mentions on programs and websites. But a study published this year in The Journal of Marketing found that recognition seems to work only for a small subset of people — those who feel that it’s important to express their moral values to other people, said Karen Winterich, one of the study’s authors.

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People whose moral values are more internalized (for example, because of their religious beliefs) don’t need the promise of future recognition to be persuaded to donate, said Winterich, an assistant marketing professor at Pennsylvania State University. As a result, charities may want to reconsider their spending levels on things like award dinners and gifts, she said.

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But just because generous people are stirred by an internal moral prompting doesn’t mean they are utterly selfless. That’s according to research by James Andreoni, who in 1989 identified the “warm glow” theory of giving. Warm glow refers to the personal pleasure people feel in knowing they have contributed to a good cause. He defines this as an “impure altruism” because it involves self-interest, according to Andreoni, an economics professor at the University of California, San Diego.

At the same time, “acting self-interested doesn’t necessarily mean acting selfish,” Andreoni said in an interview. As human beings, we naturally want to be connected and helpful, he said. “It helps us stick together as communities and take care of each other.”

Can charities use the phenomenon of warm glow to increase donations?

Amanda Chuan, a doctoral student in applied economics at the University of Pennsylvania, and Anya C. Samak, an assistant professor of consumer science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, sought to answer that question by conducting a field study involving holiday donations to a Chicago charity that provided blankets to people in need.

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Research assistants who solicited donations door to door for the charity last December followed one of two scripts. In one script, intended to stoke a “warm glow,” people were offered the option of attaching a holiday card to their gift along with a personal message, like “I hope you enjoy the blanket.” In the other script, researchers simply asked for donations to the charity.

Contrary to what they anticipated, the researchers found that the holiday-card approach was not particularly effective. People who could normally have been expected to give small amounts ($5 or less) were less likely to give at all when presented with the option of filling out a holiday card. That’s because they were motivated by social pressure to give, and appealing to their altruism turned them away from giving at all, Samak said.

On the other hand, people who gave larger amounts were likely to do so for altruistic reasons, and they tended to give money whether presented with the holiday card option or not.

Was their altruism “pure” and selfless or “impure” and self-interested? Ultimately, the true nature of altruism is a question for philosophers. But on a practical level, charities may find it valuable to test commonly held assumptions on what motivates people to give.