Following natural disasters like a hurricane or earthquake, many people rely on the generosity of strangers to help rebuild their lives. Donations to disaster relief organizations, local food and diaper banks, and other charities can make a big difference to people in great need.
However, we know that not everyone who can donate to these organizations ends up opening their wallets. In fact, a phenomenon known as compassion collapse (or fade) can make people less generous following catastrophic situations—or any time we are faced with many people in need.
Are there ways that charities and individuals can help overcome our tendency to limit generosity? Fortunately, several studies suggest that there are. Here are ten evidence-based methods for encouraging people to give more to charity.
1. Focus appeals on a single person (and use it to overcome prejudice)
It’s easier to give to one person than a group of people, says the research.
Several studies have found evidence supporting the “identifiable victim effect,” the observation that people are more willing to provide aid to a single individual with a name and a face than to an anonymous victim or a nebulous group of victims. This effect can be profound. In one study, people were willing to donate significantly more money to a single named starving child than to two named starving siblings. This suggests that charities that are trying to help thousands of people should highlight how a potential donor could make a difference for a specific person (even if their donation might do much more than that).
However, not all identifiable victims are treated the same.
We tend to have a difficult time identifying with members of traditionally stigmatized groups, even when face to face with an individual person in need, likely because we fear the emotional costs that might be incurred from helping the person. For example, one study found that participants anticipated they would feel more emotional exhaustion from helping a stigmatized person (in this case, a person with a drug problem) than from helping someone who had an uncontrollable illness. The participants also showed evidence of dehumanizing the person with the drug problem.
Encouragingly, a second experiment found that proactively framing a person’s situation as “inspiring and rewarding” rather than “emotionally exhausting and tiring” could prevent the anticipated emotional exhaustion and signs of dehumanization.
This suggests that organizations that help traditionally stigmatized populations may be able to elicit more generosity from a wider group of people by carefully framing their solicitations in a positive light. This may allow more people to overcome their fear of emotional exhaustion and foster a sense of connection with the person in need.
2. Help people to feel their emotions, rather than repress them
One study suggests that we’re less likely to want to help groups because people find the needs of larger groups to be emotionally overwhelming. To prevent these emotional costs, people tamp down their emotions and numb their compassion and sense of connection to members of the large group.
However, this study also found that this compassion collapse effect can be counteracted by preemptively and explicitly instructing people to feel their emotions rather than trying to regulate them.
In one experiment, participants who were told to adopt a “detached and unemotional attitude” experienced a compassion collapse when hearing stories about eight children versus a single child from Darfur. That wasn’t the case when researchers told another group to “let yourself feel your emotions without trying to get rid of them”—those participants felt similar levels of compassion for both the single child and the group of children.
While this experiment didn’t test whether this similar compassion would result in similar donations, it does suggest that instructing people to be more in tune with their emotions may result in increased giving.
3. Tie giving to a sense of identity and purpose
Research suggests that tying generosity to a person’s identity may increase their generous intentions—they are more willing to give when they see generosity as part of who they are.
For instance, in one study, young children were more likely to help others when they had been identified as “being a helper.” Another study found that when people gave away something that represented their essence, such as a signature, personal possession, or blood donation, they were more committed to helping the cause in the future compared to people who gave something less personal.
“People are more willing to give when they see generosity as part of who they are”
Another study found that people who identify as environmentalists are less likely to experience compassion fade when it comes to supporting environmental conservation initiatives. In one experiment, non-environmentalists donated significantly less when given the option to help all polar bears than they did to help a single polar bear. Environmentalists, on the other hand, gave equally in both conditions.
Thus, getting people to identify with a charity, cause, or group of people in need may lead to greater generosity by preventing these people from emotionally blocking out a stressful situation.
4. Ask people to pay later (and thank them right away)
Changing the timing of a solicitation may help to motivate potential donors who are on the fence about whether to give.
According to one study, creating some time between when you ask someone to donate and when they actually part with their money might help convince reluctant donors to say “yes.” This study showed that giving participants the ability to decide to donate to a charity—but giving them a choice about whether to send the money that day or later—increased the overall number of people who decided to donate. The researchers speculate that this was because the donors received the immediate positive reward of deciding to help the charity, but the pain of actually paying the money was delayed and thus discounted.
The study also found that a way to get even more people to give is to allow them to pledge to give but tell them that they can cancel their pledge at any point. Somehow, having an easy out made people less likely to reverse their decision to give.
Gratitude also helped to amplify the positive effects of delaying payment: Sending participants a simple email thanking them for their pledge cut in half the number of participants who later backed out of their pledge.
5. Describe the impact of the gift
When it comes to charitable giving, people want to know that their donations are making an impact. Several studies highlight this fact, as well as the mechanisms that may allow people to sense the impact of their giving in some contexts more than others.
One study found that, across three different experiments, adding tangible details about a charity’s interventions increased donations because these details increased the participants’ belief that their generosity could have an impact on a particular problem.
More information about where charity money will go also makes people happier about their decision to give.
In one study, giving more money to a charity led to more happiness, but only when participants were told that their donation would specifically buy a bed net for a child in Africa (and how that bed net would make a difference in that child’s life)—not when they were told their donation would simply support the charity’s general fund.
This suggests that highlighting the impact that a donation or gift has on its recipient may increase the emotional rewards associated with generosity, and could lead to increased giving.
6. Make giving feel good
Indeed, when it comes to charitable giving, there is a strong connection—and often a feedback loop—between generosity and emotion.
In a 2016 study, researchers asked some participants to do a writing exercise designed to elicit positive feelings: They either expressed gratitude, wrote about an ideal future self, or wrote about an intensely joyful experience. As it turned out, these participants applied more effort when they were asked to perform acts of kindness compared with participants who did a neutral writing task.
In another study, participants who recalled a time when they purchased something for someone else felt happier than those who recalled spending money on themselves—and the happier the participants were following this memory, the more likely they were to choose to spend money on someone else in a subsequent lab experiment. This suggests there is a feedback loop between happiness and generosity.
7. …Or make giving feel like a sacrifice
Other studies report a different relationship between emotions and generosity: the so-called “martyrdom effect.”
In one study, people were willing to donate more to a charity when they anticipated having to suffer to raise the money. They gave more money when they participated in a charity race than in a charity picnic, even though they generally preferred attending the picnic.
Other experiments in this study found that people perceived donations requiring pain and effort to be more meaningful and that the effect was strongest when charitable giving was to causes having to do with human suffering.
8. Provoke givers to feel awe or elevation
Feelings of awe—the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends one’s understanding of the world—can also increase generosity.
In a 2012 study, participants who watched awe-inspiring videos reported greater willingness to volunteer their time to help others—among a host of other positive effects—when compared with participants who watched videos that induced other emotions.
Another study, published last year, found that participants who took photos of inspiring nature scenes reported feeling kinder, more helpful, and more connected to others than did participants who took photos of human-built environments or who did not take any photos. Yet another study asked some participants to stand among towering eucalyptus trees and look up for one minute, while other participants simply looked up at a building for one minute. Those who looked at the trees experienced more awe—and also picked up more pens for a researcher who “accidentally” spilled them on the ground.
In other words, encouraging people to feel awe may have the added benefit of leading those people to behave more generously.
Similarly, feelings of elevation—the feeling that we get when witnessing someone perform a good deed or morally exemplary act—can inspire generosity. One study found that undergraduate students who reported frequently experiencing moments of elevation also reported frequently engaging in kind and helpful behaviors such as making change for a stranger or donating blood, while another study found that inducing feelings of moral elevation through video clips or written stories increased white participants’ donations to a black-oriented charity.
9. Tailor giving appeals
Oddly enough, one way to increase the success of donation appeals may be to tailor the message of the solicitation based on the wealth of the potential donor.
One recent study—aptly titled “Both selfishness and selflessness start with the self”—found that wealthier individuals were more willing to give and give more when the appeal emphasized personal agency and the pursuit of individual goals: “You=Life Saver, Like the sound of that?” or “Sometimes, one person needs to come forward and take individual action. This is one of those times.”
Less wealthy individuals, on the other hand, were more likely to give in response to appeals that highlighted communion and the pursuit of shared goals: “Let’s save a life together” or “Sometimes, one community needs to come forward and support a common goal.”
These results suggest that encouraging generosity across the socioeconomic spectrum may be more successful if the messages targeted to wealthy individuals are different from those targeted to less wealthy people.
10. Take advantage of contagious generosity
Several studies suggest that generosity can be socially contagious.
In one study, participants who watched others make generous donations donated more than those who watched stingy donations. Another experiment in this study found that when people observed empathic group responses to emotional scenarios, they were more likely to experience empathy in themselves, and to donate more money to a homeless shelter.
A different study, which involved a game where participants could choose to act selfishly or cooperatively, found that every generous contribution was tripled by other participants over the course of the experiment, suggesting that generosity can cascade through social networks. In fact, the researchers found that a generous act by one person could inspire generosity in someone three degrees removed from them, showcasing how a single person can influence dozens or perhaps hundreds of people in their social network, including those they have never met.
Yet another study using various economic games suggested that just a single person acting as a “consistent contributor”—someone who chooses to be generous all the time, regardless of other people’s choices—causes other people in a group to be more generous and cooperative.
Together, these studies show that there are subtle ways to nudge people to become more generous in their day-to-day lives. In a world where media can make us very aware of people in need, we need all of these tools to help each other overcome compassion collapse and allow our best selves to come forward.