Why are customers charitable?


Why are customers charitable? Is there research on the primary motivations for customers buying or participating in a charitable product, company, or non-profit? What behavioral psychology research has been done for understanding customers in the context of CSR, charity-marketing, and non-profits?

Edit Another way to answer the question is what's the value proposition (in general terms) of a charitable organization? What research has been done on this?


asked Dec 20 '10 at 12:39
204 points
  • Can you give some examples to make the question more concrete? – Nathan Farrington 13 years ago
  • This doesn't help you, sorry, but I avoid products that "contribute some money to a charity on purchase". I know several other people that are the same way. So something to think about. – Percent20 13 years ago
  • @percent20 ... interesting, why? – Emile 13 years ago
  • Because I see it more as a marketing ploy than helping a charity. "Usually" when companies do this type of thing the actual benefit to the charity is small compared to people who truly believe in the charity and will cut checks. Take the razr phone for example from years ago. They would sell the red motorola razr, which soured me ont he idea, for $300 and donate $1 to breast cancer. Great cause, but at the end of the day who benefited more? The company or the charity? So I steer clear and if the charity is something I believe in I'll usually donate more than buying a product will ever do. – Percent20 13 years ago
  • Also use the guy that wrote an iPhone app for wikileaks. He sold the app for 4 dollars 1 dollar went to wikileaks 1 went to apple and 2 went to "development expenses". He got in trouble for it for a variety reasons, but the biggest is because he was calling it a charity drive and wasn't giving all the money to a charity. If someone donates all money from selling a product I am more likely to look at the product, but a simple 1% or 5% to me isn't anything more than marketing and not a true representation of caring about the charity. – Percent20 13 years ago

1 Answer


There are tons of real research on this. Just do a literature search through psych, business and marketing journals on "charity" or "giving". The amount and vagueness of the question makes answering very difficult, as there's no way to condense the whole body of literature into a single, short OnStartUp answer.

Here are top-level observations I always keep in mind:

  • People are more willing to help if the smaller the suggested donation.
  • People are more willing to help a single individual than many individuals, hence the usual appeal to help "Estephan, age 7, in Paraguay", instead of the "The Poor in Paraguay", complete with a pic and certificate of Estephan.
  • People are more willing to help if they are (or feel they are) the only one who can help, a.k.a. "Bystander effect".
  • People are more willing to help if they believe their help will be noticeable, a.k.a. "Futility thinking".
  • People are more willing to help if other people talk about what they give, a.k.a. good old "Peer pressure".
  • People are more willing to help if you actually ask for time, rather than money. (I think it was Journal of Consumer Research)
  • People who've helped are more willing to help.
  • People who are "happy" are more willing to help. (Thoits & Hewitt)

That's just touching on the tip of the iceberg. One of the more populist writers is Robert. B. Cialdini.

answered Jan 6 '11 at 04:35
1,383 points
  • @alphadogg, these are excellent behavioral observations and similar to what I pulled up doing a Google Scholar search. Cialdini is a great recommendation to. However, the question is why do people give...not what makes then more likely to do. Another way to phrase it, what value proposition is a charitable org offering (backed by research this info would be a great starting point to analyze value proposition strengths). I'll edit my answer to reflect this. – Emile 13 years ago
  • @Emile: I am unsure as to what distinction you are drawing? Could you elaborate? People give because they stochastically associate a value to the act. Thus, "why do people give" is given by what makes the process likelier. The value is arrived at, in part, by the evaluations listed above. – Alphadogg 13 years ago
  • @Emile: Also, the way I would understand a "value proposition" of a charitable org is basically that is describes what they do with the money. The American Cancer Society "sells" broad-based funding of research, patient services, early detection, treatment and education as it relates to cancer. – Alphadogg 13 years ago
  • @alphadogg, thanks for your help. I would argue that factors which promote a behavior do not necessarily speak to the value of an offer. For instance, "people who've helped are more willing to help." Value props of for-profits include: newness, performance, customization, brand/status, price, cost reduction, risk reduction, accessibility, and convenience (source: Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne's Blue Ocean Strategy and all their cited research). If it is stochastic (rather than random), then there is a trend. What's the trend? Do people fly United Airlines cause they stochastically (cont.) – Emile 13 years ago
  • associate a value to the act? Your answer is helpful and I haven't found my research yet, so thank you. Two suggestions...(1) if it's indeed stochastic, then my question seeks the part of the model which is predictable, and (2) populist is the wrong word. So maybe change "stochastic" to "random" and "populist" to "popular"? – Emile 13 years ago
  • What initially confused me in your question was that I thought you looked for what motivated the act of giving. What you are actually asking is what do people seek when they want to give? – Alphadogg 13 years ago

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