Study Finds Differences in How Economic Groups Donate

A new study suggests that charitable giving is closely tied to how people see themselves. For example, higher income individuals tend to give to charities when they are asked in a way that appeals to their self-concept of independence and self-reliance. Lower income individuals, however, give based on their perception of being part of a community and social connection.

The study, performed by psychologists Ashley Whillans, Eugene Caruso, and Elizabeth Dunn, looked at this phenomenon over the course of three experiments.

In the first experiment, participants were sent to the website for an organization called The Life You Can Save, which focuses on ending extreme poverty. Visitors were asked to participate in a survey in exchange for a complimentary book. Half of the 185 participants (58% of whom were female) read an “agentic” appeal for donations that emphasized the organization as one that focuses on what an individual can do to reduce poverty. The other 50% read a more “communal” appeal that focused on what “all of us together can do to reduce poverty.”

Wealthier participants—those earning $90,000 a year or more—were more likely to click to donate after reading the agentic appeal, while lower income participants—those making $40,000 or less a year—were more likely to donate after experiencing the communal appeal. Other elements like gender, ethnicity, and age made no difference.

The theory behind these results is that wealthier individuals see themselves as having more personal control and less need to rely on others. Those with lower incomes, on the other hand, rely more on other people. So when charitable organizations strategize their copy based on these ideas, they can potentially get more donations from either group.

While this particular study is too small for sweeping generalizations, it is backed up to a certain extent by previous studies, including one from 2010. That study, published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that, despite their own financial hardship, lower income individuals were more generous, charitable, trusting, and helpful than their upper class counterparts. The study authors suggested that this was because lower income donors have a greater commitment to the sort of mentality that leads to involvement with charity, such as egalitarian values and compassion.

It’s too early to determine definitive conclusions based on this small amount of data, but it’s still valuable in the sense that it gives charities something to consider when deciding how they want to approach potential donors.