Why do people make charitable donations?

  • Oct 1, 2012
  • Don Pendley

Why do people donate? In November 2010, USA Today reported on a new research initiative at the University of Notre Dame that “will merge economic, sociological, and psychological studies to explain why some people give and some don’t” and to create a new academic field called the Science of Generosity. The study’s leaders hope it will help “define how people can become more generous, leading to improved mental health and help organizations that depend on generous people to tailor their messages.”

Chicago-based philanthropic adviser Lisa Dietlin noted that such studies might accelerate giving, but they won’t create it. “I think it’s still about people having relationships with people and sharing their stories about why their cause is so important.”

Another academic inquiry into the topic comes from the Harvard Business School’s 2009 working paper “Feeling Good about Giving: The Benefits (and Costs) of Self-Interested Charitable Behavior.” The study showed a fortuitous circuit: “Happier people give more and giving makes people happier, such that happiness and giving may operate in a positive feedback loop.”

Research in this area goes beyond social science. Paul Zak, who founded Claremont Graduate University’s Center for Neuroeconomic Studies in California, thinks chemistry might offer a key to giving. He and his team gave a nasal spray containing oxytocin to half a study group and one containing salt water to the rest. The subjects then played a game requiring them to decide whether or not to give money away. The oxytocin recipients increased their giving by 80 percent over the others.

The link between neurology and giving is also reflected in studies utilizing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while people played a charity-focused game. Those who increased their giving showed significantly more pleasure indicators on their MRIs. Also, several studies have shown that volunteering by senior citizens not only improves their mood but lengthens their lifespan.

Individual perceptions are at the heart of charitable giving. Despite the common misperception that corporations and foundations constitute the bulk of giving, most donations come from individuals, and mostly from those in the middle class, according to Grassroots Fundraising Journal. Author Sandra Sims lists the top five reasons why people give to charitable causes:

  • Personal experiences;
  • They want to make a difference;
  • They want to do something active about a problem or take a stand on a particular issue;
  • They are motivated by personal recognition and benefits;
  • Giving is good thing to do.

We found threads of all those reasons among some Mensa Foundation donors to whom we spoke at the Reno AG in July. Bertie Clarke, for example, touched on some of those points in explaining why she and her husband Jim give to the Foundation: “We’re a three-generation Mensa family. What my grandkids will encounter is based on the research we find. And, yes, it’s tax deductible.”

Jean Becker has personal reasons for her Foundation support: “Like all Mensans, I was a gifted kid, but for me it was a difficult thing. I want to make it easier for other gifted kids in the future. I also believe in the worth of research—I’d always support research into the gifted.”

J. Gail McGrew explained how her family used life insurance policies, an annuity, and an inherited estate fund to create three Foundation scholarships—their giving focuses on AML Region 5, physics and chemistry, and special education.

All of which is gratifying to those of us on the Foundation Board and our hundreds of Local Group scholarship volunteers, but we’re left with a puzzling question: Why do less than 2 percent of American Mensa members donate to the Foundation?

Just browse through the What We Do section of this Web site. All the pieces are there—our great scholarship programs and research grants, a constantly improving Mensa Research Journal, gifted youth programs, awards for excellence and achievement, compelling annual Colloquiums, online education, and our overall mission of advancing human intelligence. Yet the pleasure of giving reflected in the comments above still needs to catch fire among the remaining 98 percent of American Mensans.

But we’re going to do our best to change that. Building on Ms. Dietlin’s observation at the start of this story—and as thousands of professional fundraisers know—we need to get better at telling our story, making sure our fellow Mensans know the Foundation’s good work and how we all can help. Please donate today.