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How to Convince the Rich to Donate Money

New research suggests charitable appeals work best when they fit with the donor’s self-concept.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

It’s that time of year when your mailbox is full of plaintive pleas for money. Do you have any idea why some inspire you to get out your checkbook, while others end up in the recycling bin?

Recent research suggests the answer may reside in a combination of two factors: how the request is framed, and your personal level of wealth.

It finds wealthier people are more likely to respond to appeals that emphasize how one individual can make a difference. In contrast, the less-wealthy prefer language that evokes many people coming together to fulfill an important goal.

“By tailoring messages to fit with people’s self-concepts, it is possible to catalyze giving across the socioeconomic spectrum,” writes a research team led by psychologist Ashley Whillans of the University of British Columbia.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was right when he asserted the rich “are different from you and me.”

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, is grounded in previous research that reveals people of different levels of wealth tend to look at themselves differently. “Lower-class individuals typically develop more communal self-concepts, whereby the self is primarily designed by one’s social connection to others,” the researchers write. In contrast, for members of the upper class, “the self is primarily defined by one’s individual capacity for personal control.”

If that is widely true, the researchers reason, “providing a fit between a charitable appeal and the donor’s self-concept should increase generosity.” To test that theory, they conducted three studies with a total of more than 1,000 participants — both Americans and Canadians.

The first of these featured 185 people who visited the website of the charity The Life You Can Save. They filled out a survey in which they reported, among other things, their income and net worth.

They then read one of two appeals for money. One read, in part, “The Life You Can Save spreads knowledge of what each person can do individually to reduce poverty.” The other told them the charity “spreads knowledge of what all of us can do together to reduce poverty.” The rest of the wording was identical.

The researchers found those at the lower end of the income spectrum (less than $50,000 annually) were more likely to click on the “Donate today” button if they had read the communal appeal. But those making $90,000 or more were more likely to do so if they read the individualistic appeal.

Two additional studies, in which people were approached at a science museum in Chicago and two locations in Vancouver, found the same pattern.

“These findings point to a re-interpretation of economic data showing that wealthy individuals are less inclined to donate to charity,” Whillans and her colleagues conclude. “Rather than reflecting an inherent failure of wealthier people to exhibit compassion toward other people, this pattern may reflect a motivational conflict that can be readily overcome by altering (the way an appeal is framed).”

So F. Scott Fitzgerald was right when he asserted the rich “are different from you and me.” They’re more likely to see themselves as self-sufficient — and to respond to appeals that reflect that idea.