To Inspire People to Give, Be Public About Your Giving

Many people think it would be nicer if people were to give more money to non-profits, especially effective ones. However, for most people, it doesn’t even occur to them that they giving a large share of their salary to charity is something that people actually can do, or that people are doing on a regular basis.

Being public with one’s pledge to donate not only spreads information about how easy it is to fight global poverty with a serious commitment, but that such commitments are the kind of thing that people can actually take. By being public with these pledges, we can actually inspire people to give, where they otherwise wouldn’t.

But how did people get stuck in a rut? Why doesn’t giving money come naturally? And how would public declarations help dig people out of this rut?

The Bystander Effect and The Assumption of Self-Interest

First, to understand how to get people to give we have to understand why they currently do not. There are a number of reasons, but one of the most prevalent is what’s called the bystander effect. While this effect is widely known in groups failing to respond to disasters right in front of their faces, it’s magnified when the disaster is global poverty a continent or two away. We think that because other people around us are not giving, it must also not be our responsibility, and we sure wouldn’t want to be suckered into helping when no one else is doing their fair share.

Ever since Thomas Hobbes’s The Leviathan, seeing human nature in terms of selfishness has been common, and persists to this day[1,2] as a strong and occasionally self-reinforcing belief[3,4]. People think of monetary incentives as being the most effective incentive for encouraging blood donations[5], even when this turns out to not be the case[6]. People greatly over-estimate the amount people will support a policy that favors them over other people[5]. As noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835, “Americans enjoy explaining almost every act of their lives on the principle of self-interest”[7].

This leads us to a natural assumption that donating to charity is irrational… or, at least, other people aren’t doing it, so neither should I. However, this norm of self-interest is largely a myth, and people seem to do better than most people expect.

Challenging the Self-Interest Norm

This means the self-interest norm has to be challenged, and if it is challenged, we can expect people to revise their selfish-based theory of human nature and turn to more selfless acts like charitable giving. If we’re interested in getting people to donate more than what they already do, we need to open people up to the idea that charitable giving cannot only be virtuous but expected, and can be done not only at the typical rate of 1%, but at rates of 10% or much higher[8]. We also should challenge the norm that charity should be silent and not spoken about, and instead mention it openly and proudly[9].

People tend to conform, both intentionally and unintentionally, adopting the actions of others[4], and end up unwilling to adopt contrary actions unless other people are also going along with them. If peer pressure can make high schoolers turn to drug use, alcohol drinking, cigarette smoking, or even drop out of high school[10], surely it can stop people from giving.

For example, take the famous Asch Conformity Experiments. Here, people were in a group and asked to look at a line and compare its length to three other lines on another card, and state which line matches the height of the first line. The task is enormously simple, but is complicated by being in a group of several other people, all in on the experiment, all who give the identical wrong answer.

Asch found that many people would conform to this wrong answer, even against their better judgement. However, by adding another subject to this experiment who would give the correct answer, the tendency to conform would drop dramatically, even though the correct answer is still in the minority. Take away the partner, even halfway through the experiment with the same subject, and conformity shoots back up.

However, allowing people an escape from this norm can lead them to be able to increase their charitable donations. In one field experiment, a radio station would mention to potential donors whenever a previous donor had donated $300, and they found that this increased donations by $13 more per person over the control condition, and these donors were also more likely to renew their memberships and donate more the next year compared to those in the control condition[11].

In a separate field experiment, donors gave more to a radio station when prompted with an amount that was higher than their previous contribution[12]. Lastly, a third field experiment found that student donors were more likely to give to funds for students when told that 64% of other students had donated than when they were told that 46% of other students had donated[13].

Overall, people are moved by seeing what others do, and can be tilted away from self-destructive norms by seeing other people go against the flow. An organization like Giving What We Can making a public stand for giving can accomplish just that. Make your giving public, and it should multiply as you inspire others.

Motivations and Fights for Status

Reflecting on the need to push up the norm to accurately reflect the giving nature of society, it seems like the pushback to privatize giving is harmful. And I think it is. But why does it come about in the first place? Robert Wiblin speculates that being public about giving calls your motivations into question. If you’re only motivated by compassion for those in need, why do you need to boast?

Well, of course, there’s an interest in raising the norm. But let’s assume that giving was really just a giant fight for status… would that be so bad? All else being equal, I prefer pure intention to that of giving just to prove to others, but competing for status via donation oneupmanship is considerably more useful than competing for status via bigger houses, bigger cars, and bigger flatscreen TVs.

Or rather, people still end up competing over their charitable contributions, but it comes in the forms of significantly less-effective (though still arguably worthwhile) charitable competition, like volunteering, building schools, or adopting African children. If, instead, we normalized people giving checks, at least more people could be helped while the status fight goes on.


Many people want to leave the world in a better place than they found it, perhaps even going as far as wanting to do the best they can. To these people, I hope that the idea of donation, especially to effective causes in potentially large amounts ends up appealing. But if this cool idea is seen as “boastful”, it won’t catch on, and won’t get the publicity (I think) it deserves.

Moreover, people won’t be able to network together and share information about more cost-effective charities or the latest trends in development economics, because everyone will be keeping it to themselves, ending up being collectively self-defeating.

We seem forced by society to pretend to be self-interested, because we’re asked to not talk about our acts of kindness. But this only goes to re-enforce the deadly cycle. The only way to push ourselves out of this cycle is to demonstrate that some people do donate and push up this norm. And groups like GivingWhatWeCan, 80000 Hours, and BolderGiving are working on doing just that.

Personally, I’d have to agree that this works—I’m inspired by these stories, and I don’t think I would ever be donating 10%+ without a group that makes it seem like a completely normal and awesome thing to do.

So is talking about donations too boastful? I think, for the sake of those the donations help, we can afford a little boasting in this one area.

References and Notes

(Note: Most of these links open to PDFs.)

[1]: Barry Schwartz. 1986. The Battle for Human Nature: Science, Morality and Modern Life. Canada: Penguin Books.

[2]: Alfie Kohn. 1990.
The Brighter Side of Human Nature. New York: Basic Books.

[3]: Dale T. Miller. 1999. “The Norm of Self-Interest”. American Psychologist 54 (12): 1053-1060.

[4]: John M. Darley and Russell H. Fazio. “Expectancy Confirmation Processes Arising in the Social Interaction Sequence”. 1980. American Psychologist 35 (10): 867-881.

[5]: Dale T. Miller and Rebecca K. Ratner. 1998. “The Disparity Between the Actual and Assumed Power of Self-Interest”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74 (1): 53-62.

[6]: Nicola Lacetera, Mario Macis, and Robert Slonim. 2011. “Rewarding Altruism? A Natural Field Experiment”. The National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper #17636.

[7]: Alexis de Tocqueville in J.P. Mayer ed., G. Lawrence, trans. 1969.
Democracy in America. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, p546.

[8]: The Giving What We Can pledge requires 10% and this is already shockingly high for most, but people on 80000 Hours’s member list or among Bolder Giving’s stories donate up to 50% of their income or more!

[9]: Of course, I don’t think we should mention it *all* the time—we should recognize when is the time and place, and not be unreasonable. On the same time, we shouldn’t be completely silent. Places like Facebook, personal blogs, and when the topic comes up for conversation all seem like fair game.

[10]: Alejandro Gaviria and Steven Raphael. 2001. “School-Based Peer Effects and Juvenile Behavior”. The Review of Economics and Statistics 83 (2): 257-268.

[11]: Other conditions were $180, $75, or no prompt about previous donors at all. Jen Shang and Rachel Croson. Forthcoming. “Field Experiments in Charitable Contribution: The Impact of Social Influence on the Voluntary Provision of Public Goods”. The Economic Journal.

[12]: Rachel Croson and Jen Shang. 2008. “The Impact of Downward Social Information on Contribution Decisions”. Experimental Economics 11: 221-233.

[13]: Bruno S. Frey and Stephan Meier. 2004. “Social Comparisons and Pro-social Behavior: Testing ‘Conditional Cooperation’ in a Field Experiment”. The American Economic Review 94 (5): 1717-1722.


Also cross-posted on my blog.