Charitable appeals are more successful when tailored to fit donor’s self-image, new research shows

A recent study suggests that people who are wealthy are more likely to give to charity when a donation request appeals to their sense of independence and agency, while those who earn less money are more likely to donate when a charitable appeal emphasizes community and the pursuit of shared goals.

“Both selfishness and selflessness start with the self: How wealth shapes responses to charitable appeals,” a paper published in May by psychologists Ashley Whillans, Eugene Caruso, and Elizabeth Dunn, proposes that people tend to be more generous when a donation request resonates with their self-image — a self-image which is largely shaped by social class.

Research was conducted across three field studies where participants were randomly assigned either an “agentic” or “communal” appeal and given the opportunity to make a donation. The researchers report that when the appeal emphasized agency, wealthier individuals (those earning an income of $90,000 or above) reported greater willingness to give and donated more money. However, when the appeal stressed communion, findings showed that less wealthy individuals (those earning $40,000 or less) were more willing to give. They state that findings could not be explained by relevant demographic characteristics such as age, ethnicity, or gender. 

According to Scientific American, agentic requests may appeal to wealthier individuals because people with higher incomes tend to have a greater sense of personal control. Having money allows people to be more self-reliant and this may affect how they see themselves. In contrast, people who make less money rely more on other people in their everyday lives and tend to see themselves as connected to others.

The paper concludes that: “This work adds to a growing body of research suggesting that wealth does not inherently result in selfishness or generosity. By tailoring messages to fit with people's self-concepts, it is possible to catalyze giving across the socioeconomic spectrum.”

The full paper can be found here.