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How to Convince Men to Help the Poor

New research finds the key to a successful fund-raising campaign is convincing them that their self-interest is aligned with your cause.
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Charity, Sir J. Boehm, 1874. (Photo: mira66/Flickr)

Charity, Sir J. Boehm, 1874. (Photo: mira66/Flickr)

Please give. It’s a plea we are confronted with constantly, as a variety of charities implore us to help them help the less fortunate.

Whether we get out our checkbook or throw the request in the recycling bin is determined, in part, by the specific way the request is framed. But a new study suggests non-profits might want to create two separate appeals: One aimed at men, and another at women.

A research team led by Stanford University sociologist Robb Willer reports empathy-based appeals tend to be effective with women. But as a rule, men—who traditionally give somewhat less to anti-poverty charities—need to be convinced that their self-interest aligns with that of the campaign.

Men “reported significantly lower levels of empathy than did women,” and this difference was reflected in their relative lack of willingness to give.

“Framing poverty as an issue that negatively affects all Americans increased men’s willingness to donate to the cause, eliminating the gender gap,” the researchers write in the journal Social Science Research.

The study used a random, nationally representative sample of 1,175 Americans. As part of a larger online survey, they provided demographic information and answered a series of questions. Their level of empathy was determined by their response to the following statement: “I am often quite touched by things that I see happen.”

They were then presented with a brief pitch by a fictional poverty-relief organization, the Coalition to Reduce Poverty. Participants were randomly assigned to read one of five appeals to support the non-profit.

The respective arguments emphasized efficacy (“more than 98 percent of donations to CRP go on to directly benefit the poor”); social conformity (“the poor are now being helped by record numbers of charitable givers across the country”); clear injustice (people “born into poverty ... never had the other opportunities that other Americans had”); or aligned self-interest (“poverty weighs down our interconnected economy ... exacerbating many social problems like crime”). The final one-fifth of participants were not presented with any pitch, but simply asked to donate.

Only one approach made a significant difference. When responding to the “aligned self-interest” appeal, “men reported significantly greater willingness to give, contributing at levels comparable to women,” the researchers report. “No other message frames were effective in increasing men’s reported willingness to give or volunteer.”

The explanation for this is clear enough: Men “reported significantly lower levels of empathy than did women,” and this difference was reflected in their relative lack of willingness to give. They were far more likely to donate money if they looked at poverty as “potentially affecting their own lives.”

So why not frame all appeals in this way? The researchers offer a cautionary note, pointing out that women presented with the self-interest-oriented appeal “reported lower willingness to volunteer time to the poverty relief organization” than those who read no argument at all.

“While this reframing resonated with men, who were otherwise less likely to spontaneously express concern about poverty,” Willer and his colleagues write, “it had the opposite effect for women, who might have felt less motivated to express concern about poverty when doing so seemed inconsistent with feeling empathy for the poor.”

So while the enlightened self-interest argument is effective overall, it seems to turn off some women. Until and unless men develop a stronger sense of empathy, targeted appeals would seem to be the way to go.