Most people who ‘promise’ to make charitable donations don’t end up paying

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Looking to fundraise or solicit donations for a charity this holiday season? Then you better make sure potential donors pay up-front!

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen looked at the effects of social pressure when it comes to charitable contributions, and more specifically, the effect of moral commitment. A majority of Danes in the digital donation social experiment made promises to pay, but never followed through. In fact, 60 percent of people who made in-person or on-the-spot promises to “pay later” ultimately sent nothing to the charity.

People who receive solicitations for donations always have the option to flatly say “no” and immediately end inquiries. However, a majority in the study nonetheless chose to say “yes” or to express interest in making a later payment which would never come through.

Without committing to an amount, only 23 percent of potential donors would follow through on their pledge promise to donate at a later time.

The study findings suggest that while it’s become vastly easier to donate through the plethora of phone payment apps like Venmo or Danish MobilePay, that’s not often the case. However, the study authors highlight that donation amounts, on average, are higher when sent through phone transfer apps like Venmo or Danish MobilePay, in comparison to donations made right out of someone’s wallet.

Peer pressure can make you ‘sound’ more generous than you want to be

One reason a majority of people in the study made on-the-spot vows to pay later – but then ultimately reneged – is the power of social pressure. People want to say “yes” to a solicitor in-person or up-front as a means of appearing to do the right, or moral thing. The study authors also suggest that people do this in order to avoid a negative situation occurring between themselves and the person asking for a donation.

“This may be a way to get out of the ask-situation with a positive image while maintaining the flexibility not to donate,” the study authors write in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.

A person’s willingness to make a donation displays a strong connection to the social pressure they feel while being asked to send money in a face-to-face situation, the researchers say. Therefore, after a fundraising solicitor physically departs, the pressure dissipates, and it becomes much easier for a potential donor to quietly opt out of donating without feeling as much moral burden.

Both verbal and written pledges where money does not immediately change hands did, to some degree, “morally tie” many potential donors to eventually send over the money, the study authors note.

“Social pressure seems to be a key driver of people’s charity, alongside the inherent motives of contributing to a positive cause. Bluntly stated, people basically give when asked to because they have a negative experience if they say no,” explains study author Toke Reinholdt Fosgaard in a university release.

“This tells us something quite deep about our desire to be social. We want to be social and act in a socially acceptable manner when asked for a contribution. But often, we also have an opposing motive – to keep our money, if we can get away with it in a way that is socially acceptable. This duality permeates everything. Thus, there is a much broader agenda for us as researchers, beyond the importance of understanding charity mechanisms.”

Out of sight, out of mind

The researchers did not rule out that some people simply forgot and missed the donation payment, but they suggest this may be a form of “motivated oversight.” This relieves the burden of any moral hangover from saying “no” to the solicitor while also preventing them from having to deal with any penny-pinching as a result of the donation.

Previous studies have tackled the topic of social tension and some of the perceived pressures of giving to charity. A study by researchers from The Ohio State University, which mixed semantics and psychological nuance, found people don’t want to feel like they’re “giving” something away, they’d rather “spend” it on a charitable donation.

A separate study revealed “checkout charity” can increase shopper’s anxiety, particularly when donations are withdrawn automatically.

Overall, the study authors recommend that fundraisers push to have the digital donations sent on-the-spot, rather than accepting promises of later payment. They also recommend fundraisers or charities “stick with digital donation options – it will pay off.”

The research findings studied 310 potential donors and 83 unique solicitors to create several different control groups in which to test donation social pressure situations.

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About the Author

Benjamin Fearnow

Mr. Fearnow has written for Newsweek, The Atlantic & CBS during his New York City-based journalism career. He discusses tech and social media topics on cable news networks.

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  1. Maybe people don’t feel like they have any ethical obligations to those who unethically pester them for money. It’s a microcosm of the degradation of the whole society really.

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