Why We Give

What motivates donors and volunteers to support chosen charities?

For the past month, I’ve been working with a nonprofit client, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Kansas City. I’ve been doing qualitative research helping them take a critical look at their volunteer and guest experiences to find opportunities for improvement. When I began this engagement, I wanted to delve into the question of what drives people to give their time and money and how they decide which particular causes to support. There’s a lot of interesting research on the first question but surprisingly little on the second one.

What I’ve come to understand from reviewing existing research and talking with donors and volunteers is that while we profess to care about impact and efficiency data, we mostly don’t. We make decisions about donating and volunteering for reasons that are emotional, idiosyncratic, and even self-serving reasons far more often than we might like to admit.

This fact creates a conundrum for charities around communicating impact. Volunteers and donors are quick to abandon charities whose impact isn’t evident or who they regard as wasteful, but even communicating impact may actually reduce donors’ and volunteers’ charitable impulses.

Volunteering is Social — Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Giving More

As the economy continues to grow, overall charitable giving has increased too. In 2017, giving in the US grew by about 12%, according to the Blackbaud Institute (“Charitable Giving Report,” 2017). However, growth is not equal among all sectors of charitable giving. Organizations serving international needs saw their giving grow almost 20%, while Higher Ed grew less than 2% and K-12 education declined.

source: “Charitable Giving Report,” 2017, Blackbaud Institute

Generational Priorities

Because charities, like brands in all sectors of the economy, are trying to figure out ways to reach and engage younger generations, insights on Millennial and Gen Z giving are important. According to the Blackbaud Institute’s “The Next Generation of American Giving” report, older generations give more, both in absolute dollar terms and in terms of the percentage of people who donate. While 75% of Boomers donate to charity with an average annual donation of over $1,000, 51% of Millennials give with an average annual donation of $591. Higher levels of disposable income and wealth afford more opportunities to be generous.

However, one generational difference that may be under appreciated is the difference in giving priorities. Younger donors rate supporting children more highly than older generations, for example. Older generations, in turn, place a higher priority on supporting Local Social Services.

from “The Next Generation of American Giving”, 2018, Blackbaud Institute

Importance of Impact

When it comes to choosing which charities to support, across all generations, donors say their number one priority in evaluating charities is efficiency. Nearly three-fourths of donors say that understanding overhead is important to them, but only 56% say they actually do the research to ascertain a charity’s expenses, and even that number may be overstated.

from “The Next Generation of American Giving,” 2018, Blackbaud Institute

Research Kills the Mood

Perhaps more importantly, researchers have found that simply doing research into a charity’s effectiveness actually reduces the likelihood of making a contribution!

Research by economists and psychologists suggests that the impulse to give does not square with thinking in such a calculating way. On the contrary, it appears that giving is driven by emotional motives, rooted in deep impulses, cognitive biases, and even our own selfish needs. And when we think too analytically about giving, we can deflate our initial generous instinct.
“What we find is that when people are thinking more deliberatively . . . they end up being less generous overall,” said Deborah Small, an associate professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

(from “Why We Give to Charity,” 2011, Boston Globe)

Daniel Oppenheimer, a psychologist at Princeton, found that giving people information about a charity’s overhead costs makes them less likely to donate. This effect is evident even when the information is positive and shows the charity is very efficient.

In fact, being efficient can actually work against a charity. Jonathon Baron, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, found that test subjects would rather donate to a charity that is less efficient and spends less on promotion, and therefore needs more money, than donate to a charity that achieves the same impact more efficiently and thus spends 20% of its budget on promotion. He concluded:

“People get utility satisfaction out of giving to a cause. And they do not care how much public good is provided.” [emphasis added]

In other words, we give because it makes us feel good about ourselves, and it doesn’t matter how much actual impact our giving achieves. Even our charitable acts are powerfully influenced by self-interest.

Perhaps the reason that researching charities makes us less likely to donate is because using our analytical faculties dampens our emotional impulse. Perhaps researching raises questions about whether our gift will actually have an impact, decreasing the satisfaction we get from giving. Or perhaps it presents us with the “paradox of choice” and makes us less satisfied with any of our giving options. Whatever the mechanism, it’s clear that we are a lot less analytical in our charitable activity than we profess to be. This observation has important implications for the ways nonprofit brands position and promote themselves.

Emotion Beats Efficiency — Photo by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash

Choosing Charities

Although there is a wealth of research about why donors and volunteers choose to be involved with charities in general, there isn’t as much research available about why they choose specific charities. One of the best resources I found on the topic was a small, qualitative study called “How Donors Choose Charities” from the UK by Beth Breeze. I heard echoes of many of her findings in the conversations I had with volunteers and donors in Kansas City.

Supporting “the Poor”

Breeze’s interviewees expressed a strong and consistent point of view that “‘needy people’ are — and should be — the focus of charitable activity.”

“We tend to think of people who are financially stretched” (male, sixties, middle income).
“I would not normally give to people for whom I think other sources were available” (male, eighties, high income).

Personal Preference

Breeze’s research concluded that personal taste of the donors was “the most salient factor” in choosing a charity. In other words, despite donors’ expressed emphasis on efficiency and research, they tend to donate to causes that they personally feel are important.

Respondents typically reported supporting “things that happen to appeal to me”, causes that are “close to my heart”, things that “touch a chord” and charities “that I admire” and “am comfortable giving to”.

The importance of personal preference came through clearly in my conversations with donors and volunteers too.

“I tend to get drawn to children’s-based charitable work. ” — female donor and volunteer
“I’ve always gravitated toward volunteering with children. I did a lot of volunteer work with Operation Breakthrough and with the YMCA early childhood development program. I just feel like with children having a sense of helplessness, they can’t do it for themselves. So if we can help them, that’s awesome.” — female donor and volunteer

Background and Connections

Besides taste, Breeze found that a donor’s personal background, life experiences, and connections play an important role in giving decisions. If someone close to you has been affected by a disease or a societal problem, you are more likely to contribute to a cause that addresses it.

‘I have a child and the very first thing I started off doing was child sponsorship.’ (Female, forties, high income)

Here in Kansas City, volunteers and donors told similar stories.

“Our uncle was just diagnosed with Lymphoma, so we’ve done a lot the last couple of years with LLS.” — female donor and volunteer
“If anyone’s doing anything for Alzheimer’s, my grandma has Alzheimer’s, so I’m definitely committed to the Alzheimer’s Association. My grandfather suffered from Parkinson’s. If there’s a cause that has impacted me personally, I tend to be willing to give a lot of money.” — female donor and volunteer

Friends Inspire Action

On the topic of connections, it’s clear that friends serve as an important link to initiating and sustaining both giving and volunteering.

“Selfishly, I think I became involved five years ago for the social aspect of it. And it grew into friendships that I’ve made, and that keeps me coming.”— female donor and volunteer
“We have people who don’t want to hear from us, but they’ll give when their friends solicit. We have a guy who runs a marathon every year for us . . . But those people, no matter how much we contact them . . . they will not give extra money unless he asks.” — female donor and volunteer

Inertia Influences

Breeze also found that despite donors’ many positive reasons to support charities, inertia and habit play an important role in donors’ giving. Once people start giving to a cause, they are reluctant to shift their charitable giving in a new direction.

Despite historic commitments impeding their ability to take on causes that might be preferable, donors rarely took the time to revise the distribution of their donations and shake out the old to make way for the new.
“I very rarely look at a new charity.” (Female, fifties, high income)

Stage of Life

A number of volunteers in my conversations pointed to lifestage as a trigger for becoming active. Empty nesters and early retirees offered comments such as:

“I retired several years ago, . . . and I still needed to have a purpose and be doing something important.” — female, volunteer
“For me, it was a season of life thing. I was so heads-down raising our family, and now they’re both out of the house. . . I had time. I could step back and breathe a little bit. “ — female, volunteer

Local Impact

Several people in my conversations expressed that being able to see a local impact made them more inclined to participate.

“I like it when you can say that the money stays local. A lot of people feel passionate about that.” — female donor and volunteer
“I was looking for a Kansas City organization that was truly impacting Kansas City.” — female donor and volunteer


Lastly, but possibly most importantly, volunteers expressed that gratitude was a powerful motivator, especially in keeping them engaged. In charitable lingo, this feeling is sometimes called “Warm Glow.”

“Gratitude. When you are helping, the families are SO grateful.” — female donor and volunteer
“You think you’re in the kitchen just doing stuff, but they really love you. They think you’re wonderful, because you’re making their lives better.” — female donor and volunteer

Taken together, both the existing research and my own conversations show giving and volunteering are highly personal decisions, driven by individual preference and experience, social connections, life events, and even self-gratification more than efficiency or impact. These findings have important implications for charities and non-profits, especially in the way they position their brands, communicate with key audiences, and of course, ask for contributions of time and money.

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

Other Important Findings

Because I wanted to explore motivations of both donors and volunteers, to see if they were different, I looked for research that distinctly studied each group. What I learned, both in my own conversations and in the research, is that there is a lot of overlap between donors and volunteers.

Donors are Volunteers

“Charitable giving and volunteering were found to be strongly correlated among respondents. Hence, charity organizations should find individuals who are very passionate about their cause because they will likely give both time and money, not just one or the other. “ — “Who Gives,” 2015, Kimberly Yao

Volunteer Experience is Essential

Another thing that stood out in both my own conversations and the research is the importance of a well-designed and well-managed volunteer experience.

“A satisfied volunteer is the best recruiter. Ensuring that volunteer assignments are satisfying and fulfilling has a payback beyond volunteers remaining with the organization. According to several surveys, the best agents for recruitment are volunteers who share their positive experiences with others. Recent surveys have shown that most individuals who volunteer learn about the opportunity from personal contact. About 40% become involved because someone asks them and over 25% learn about the work from a relative or friend involved in the activity. Less than 20% seek out the activity on their own. “ — “Why People Volunteer,” 1992, Volunteer Centre Ottawa-Carleton”

Here in Kansas City, volunteers expressed appreciation for a well-managed volunteer experience.

“They’re organized. You have something to do. You don’t walk in and sit around and like, “I’m sorry I drove down here.” They impressed me that they were organized enough that it would be worth my time and I could make a difference with them.” — female volunteer

Charitable Turnoffs

In my own research, volunteers and donors were not shy about sharing charitable experiences that were disappointing. One of the biggest recurring themes among these conversations was the way that charities use or appear to misuse money.

“I used to be more heavily involved with [another charity] in Kansas City, and I did a big fundraiser for them. . . . It was hard for me when I was asking people to donate to my page. . . ‘Yes, but what do they use the money for?’ . . . It was always kind of grey and unclear to me how they used the money. . . . And I’d seen more and more of their staff and volunteer events, and they just throw these extravagant parties. The production of a lot of their events seems to take a lot of their money.” — female donor and volunteer
“I used to give money to [another charity], and every event I went to, they asked for money. And I got to a place where I was tired of being asked. . . . If I come to six or seven events, and they ask me for money every time, what have I even done for that community? Because you don’t even know my name.” — female donor and volunteer
“I used to donate a lot of time and money to [another charity], and I stopped doing that when all that stuff came out about how they charge patients for [their service].” — female donor and volunteer

Other volunteers pointed out disappointing volunteer experiences as a reason they stopped volunteering for a charity. If they can’t get that “warm glow,” they won’t come back.

“Before I came here, I started to volunteer at [another charity], and while I was happy to do that, I didn’t find it particularly fulfilling at all —[sorting items]. I know someone has to do it, but I thought that it was more than that. “ — female volunteer

Impact and Experience

Striking the right balance between demonstrating impact and delivering a warm glow-infused experience is critical to attracting and retaining donors and volunteers. Enthusiastic friends and social connections are the best recruiting tool for getting people to engage with a charity, but too much emphasis on fun and events causes people to question a charity’s priorities and efficiency. And while perceived lack of efficiency can be a demotivating force, emphasizing it also turns out to suppress the desire to contribute. Because donors and volunteers often come from the same pool of people, ensuring that volunteers experience “warm glow” as a reward for their contributions is one of the most important things a charity can do to build the health of its brand.

Photo by Morvanic Lee on Unsplash


  1. 2017 Charitable Giving Report,” Blackbaud Institute
  2. The Next Generation of American Giving”, 2018, Blackbaud Institute
  3. How Donors Choose Charities: The Role of Personal Taste and Experiences in Giving Decisions,” 2013, Beth Breeze, University of Kent
  4. Who Gives? The Determinants of Charitable Giving, Volunteering, and Their Relationship,” 2015, Kimberly Yao, University of Pennsylvania
  5. Why People Volunteer,” 1992, Volunteer Centre Ottawa-Carleton
  6. Science Behind Why People Give Money to Charity”, March 23, 2015, The Guardian
  7. Wealthy People Give to Charity for Different Reasons Than the Rest of Us,” 2017, Scientific American
  8. Why We Give to Charity,” December 4, 2011, Boston Globe