Research & Insights

When Charity Isn’t Selfless

Charity is often seen as a selfless act, but new research tells us otherwise.

We’re more likely to give when we believe that a charity is working to fix a problem that we are susceptible to, according to communications scholar Xiaoxia Cao.

This finding comes from a study published in the February 2016 issue of the International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing. The study involved 159 participants who were asked to read one of two charitable appeals for St. Jude Research Hospital.

Both advertisements told the story of Lisa, a 21-month-old child diagnosed with a deadly form of leukemia. Doctors at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital were able to cure Lisa’s cancer despite the fact that her parents were unable to pay for her treatment.

One advertisement discussed the positive aspects of donating to the hospital, noting that “contributions enabled the hospital to save 7 out of 10 children like Lisa.” The other advertisement focused on the potential for loss if people don’t donate, explaining that “without the donations, the hospital could not prevent the death of 7 out of 10 children like Lisa.”

After reading the ads, participants responded to a series of statements designed to assess how susceptible participants felt they and their families were to Lisa’s situation, and the impact of those feelings on donations.

Cao found that participants who expressed more concern about loved ones affected by childhood cancer were more responsive to the ad highlighting potential loss and expressed a higher intention to donate.

“Charitable organizations committed to causes that affect the lives of many (e.g. finding cures for common diseases) may elicit more individual donations when using loss-framed (as opposed to gain-framed) fundraising messages,” Cao says.

In other words, if the issue you’re looking at has the potential to impact many people in your audience, encouraging them to think about the dangers of doing nothing may help when you’re asking for a contribution.

International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing 

Xiaoxia Cao, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Posted: May 12, 2016
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