Religious people are more likely to give to charity, but to get them to open their wallets consistently charities should appeal to a higher power: their self-interest.
Those are the findings of a new study from Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business in Waco, Texas that explored the relationship between religious fervor, materialism, and charitable giving. Overall, Americans are giving to charity like never before. They donated a record $410.2 billion in 2017, but much of that money came from the wealthiest households.
So how do you get other people from all walks of life to open their wallets? Very religious people of any faith are more likely to give to charity, but religious people with materialistic tendencies are less likely to do so, and they donate to a smaller variety of charitable causes, the study, by marketing professor James Roberts and assistant marketing professor Meredith David, found. The study was published in the International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing.
The study was inspired in part by a question on researchers’ minds: if religions promote the idea of being good to other people, why do 80% of church budgets come from only 20% of the congregation? “There’s a lot of people in church who espouse their religious values and yet for whatever reasons, they don’t give,” Roberts told MarketWatch.
First researchers measured participants’ interest in helping others and their attitudes toward charitable organizations, and asked them how likely they were to donate to charity within the next four weeks. Participants also provided information on the “breadth” of their charitable giving over the past year, meaning how many different types of charitable causes they had supported. Researchers also gave participants a series of questions to measure how materialistic they were.
There’s a complex reality to charitable giving: people don’t always give for altruistic reasons, Roberts told MarketWatch. “It’s not as simple as we give to help others,” Roberts said. “We give out of guilt, we give for status, we give out of competitiveness. Things are always more complicated than they seem.”
The study size was small — just 180 participants — but the findings could prove useful for charities, researchers said. Materialistic people tend to be self-centered, and charities can exploit that trait when they make appeals for donations. “Large donations that come with naming rights, spur news coverage or exceed the donations of other prominent individuals are all examples of how materialism can be used to drive charitable donations,” researchers wrote.
That point dovetails with other recent research on charitable giving. A 2018 study from the University at Buffalo School of Management found that narcissists — another set of people notorious for their self-focus — are more likely to donate money if the request focuses on them, not the recipient.
When charities asked narcissists to imagine the plight of someone else — say, a refugee or someone suffering from a rare disease — they were less likely to donate. But when charities asked narcissists to imagine themselves in the midst of such tragedies, they opened their wallets.
Of course, there are plenty of other reasons people don’t donate to charity, and many of them are economic. Younger, less-educated and lower-income people aren’t giving as much to charity as they did before the Great Recession because they are still recovering from the downturn, Una Osili, the associate dean for research and international programs at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy told MarketWatch in June.
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