Giving to Charitable Organizations: a Behavioral Review and a Framework For Increasing Commitment

Scott M. Smith, University of Oregon
ABSTRACT - This paper consolidates charitable behavior research from the social sciences with the limited research on giving to charitable organizations found in the marketing literature. The review presents a framework that integrates the alternative motivational processes underlying giving. This framework depicts the stages that each contributor must go through in order to become committed to a specific charitable organization. Suggestions for research and application are given. [This article is based in part on an earlier monograph by S. M. Smith and R. L. Cober prepared for the American Heart Association.]
[ to cite ]:
Scott M. Smith (1980) ,"Giving to Charitable Organizations: a Behavioral Review and a Framework For Increasing Commitment", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07, eds. Jerry C. Olson, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 753-756.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 7, 1980     Pages 753-756


Scott M. Smith, University of Oregon


This paper consolidates charitable behavior research from the social sciences with the limited research on giving to charitable organizations found in the marketing literature. The review presents a framework that integrates the alternative motivational processes underlying giving. This framework depicts the stages that each contributor must go through in order to become committed to a specific charitable organization. Suggestions for research and application are given. [This article is based in part on an earlier monograph by S. M. Smith and R. L. Cober prepared for the American Heart Association.]

Contributions to charitable organizations are a surprisingly large proportion of the average U.S. household budget. Charitable contributions are estimated to be in excess of 5% of the average household's adjusted gross income, totaling approximately 30 billion dollars annually. Additional time donations estimated at 29 billion dollars bring the total to almost 60 billion dollars annually, or 10% of the reported adjusted gross income of all U.S. taxpayers (Morgan, Dye and Hybels 1976). These contributions are disproportionate across the high and low income categories, but not across the middle income group, where the $10,000-$30,000 income category accounts for 50% of the households and 55% of the contributions (Morgan, Dye and Hybels 1976).

Behavioral explanations of charitable giving have been investigated by only a few consumer researchers, largely because charitable organizations are not traditionally considered to be a business enterprise. However charitable organizations are big business with outlays equivalent to over 12% of total retail sales, or 80 billion dollars annually (Rudney 1974).


Mindak and Bybee (1971) demonstrated the application of marketing techniques to the March of Dimes by increasing awareness and thereby moving potential contributors from a state of unawareness to a state of contributing, as per the adoption process model. Increased awareness increased campaign receipts by 33%. Miller (1974, 1978) showed that income and occupation are positively related to the amount of contribution to the Oklahoma Lung Association. Beik and Smith (1979) also worked with demographic profiles of contributors, but used them to rank order geographic market segments by market potential. This technique provided a planning tool for directing the deployment of fund raising resources for the American Heart Association.

Each of the above cited studies focuses on the relationship between demographic market descriptors and total contribution level. However, excepting altruistic behavior literature from psychology, the behavioral roots underlying charitable giving have not been considered.


Charitable giving is operationally defined as the behavioral manifestation of altruistic and/or hedonic motivations that mediate contributing behavior. Charitable giving is an act that is voluntary, does good, is an end in itself, and is not directed at harm (Leeds 1963). Although easy to operationally define, it is difficult to conceptualize the relationships underlying cognitive constructs leading to charitable giving. The cognitive explanation of charitable giving is obscure in part due to the many forms of altruistic and/or hedonic motivation that explain observed behavior.

Krebs (1970) suggests altruistic behavior arises out of either the social development processes (Piaget 1932) or personality (Cattell and Horowitz 1952). The developmental perspective posits that altruistic behavior is instilled through education during the formative years of socialization. A developmental explanation of Charitable giving has not been offered, though a variety of altruistic behaviors have been researched: norms of reciprocity (Gouldner 1960), pro-social behavior (Bandura and Walters 1963), helping behavior (Berkowitz 1967), volunteering (Rosenbaum 1956), and mood states (Underwood, Froming, and Moore 1977).

The investigation of personality as a variable salient in the decision to make charitable contributions is founded in the search for variables that describe the person who is very "giving". The conceptual definition of an altruistic personality is a problem as it was within the social development framework, because the existence of altruistic behavior is implied, but not confirmed. However personality has been supported as a mediator of altruistic behavior (Weiner 1976). In total, the developmental process and personality approaches to the study of altruistic behavior have not provided a cohesive explanation of altruistic behavior.

Social psychologists have shown the existence of the altruistic phenomenon in a variety of situations and have even produced motivations toward various types of altruistic behavior. This paper considers charitable giving as one such altruistic behavior that can be precipitated as a function of the potential giver's situation. For example, the motivation for giving may be primarily economic when one gives to receive a tax credit. Alternatively, the donation may be made because of a felt social responsibility or commitment to a charitable organization that is purely altruistic.

Situations that have seemingly inherent motivational qualities are not the only explanations of altruistic behavior. Attitude change may be related to an increase in giving behavior. Kelman (1961) proposed a functionalist theory of attitude change that included three processes of attitude change, each of which contained motivational properties that both mediated and were congruent with altruistic behavior: compliance, identification, and internalization. The notion of distinct attitudinal processes has not been seriously considered as a viable explanation of behavior, but Kelman's theory does suggest that attitude change and therefore behavior are contingent upon the source of motivation. In the compliance process, the contributor's range of behavior is limited by the type and amount of control being exercised over his behavior. Thus, rewards attached to behavior, and the degree of value internalization influence motivation towards the prescribed behavior.

In keeping with Kelman's framework, giving behavior may be observed across a range of situations, each distinguishable in terms of the amount of reward received (hedonic motivation) and the degree of internalized behavior (altruistic motivation). The range of motivation source, then extends from a meet reactance to environmental variables that create temporary mood states, to internalized behavior. It is this range of behavior that forms the framework for understanding the process of contributing behavior (see fig. 1).



Reactance to Situations and Actions of Others

Temporary Psychological States.  Temporary psychological states result from immediate prior stimulus occurring within a situational context. The influence of a stimulus on altruistic or helping behavior has been found to be temporary and limited, with the immediacy of effects being a statistically significant variable.

Experimental evidence indicates that helpful or altruistic responses in behalf of dependent others are more likely to occur when the respondent is experiencing a temporary state of success, a feeling of competence, or some other temporary "good feeling" than when his situational experience has been neutral (Harris and Samerotte 1976). A negative temporary state as in failure or some other guilt-producing experience similarly affects the motivation toward altruistic behavior. An unpleasant negative state is often relieved by participating in some altruistic behavior (Regan, Williams, and Sparling 1972). Rawlings (1968) suggests that the temporary state created by observation of a person receiving harm is sufficient to induce altruism. However, a failure experience that does not lead to harm of another does not seem to be positively related to a later occurrence of altruistic behavior.

Economic Motivation.  It is generally concluded in the altruistic literature that the higher the cost to the helper, the lower the rate of helping behavior. However, other factors may mediate this cost consideration (Midlarsky and Midlarsky 1970). One such mediating variable is economic return.

The gross dollar contribution to charities is quite sensitive to the real cost of giving as implied by the federal income tax. Feldstein (1975) reports that charitable giving is not only sensitive to potential tax changes, but also differs substantially across the types of organizations receiving gifts. Educational institutions and hospitals are very sensitive to the cost of giving, while religious organizations are much less sensitive. This finding is presumably due to the degree of internalization of values dictating religious contributions. Feldstein estimated that the elimination of charitable deductions would reduce religious gifts by only 14%, while gifts to educational institutions and hospitals would be cut approximately in half. Economic motivation for charitable contributions is perhaps the most salient of all mediators of giving.

Reciprocity.  The norm of reciprocity, as defined by Gouldner (1960), specifies that a return must be given for benefits received. This alleviation of indebtedness is the essence of reciprocity and is theoretically described as:

"an aversive state having motivational properties such that the greater the magnitude of indebtedness, the stronger the efforts at its reduction and, consequently, the greater the probability and magnitude of reciprocation".

Current research has shown that effort expended to repay another is a positive function of the amount of prior help received (Greenberg and Bar-Tal 1976; Gross and Latane 1974). Receiving help places the receiver in a state of indebtedness, which has motivational properties toward restoring equity through reciprocation (Greenberg 1968). Motivation toward reciprocation is further enhanced by a magnified image of the benefactor that results from his helping, such that the probability of reciprocation is increased.

When people are unable to reciprocate, a different form of the same behavior is demonstrated. Greenberg and Shapiro (1971) observed a greater reluctance to request help, and when help is received they accept less help, and even show less liking for the donor (Castro 1974; Gergen, Ellsworth, Maslach, and Seipel 1975).

Identification with Individual and Group Others

Dependency of Others.  Dependency refers to an individual's reliance on someone or something else for aid. Most studies reviewed support the proposition that perceived dependency of a recipient elicits altruistic behavior.

Experimental results indicate that when the causes of dependency are perceived as beyond the control of the recipient mere altruism is elicited than when dependency was perceived as internally caused. External dependency was also seen as more legitimate than internal dependency (Wheeler and Wagner 1968). Dependency seems to be legitimized and altruistically rewarded when externally caused. However subsequent altruistic behavior may be mediated by other variables, such as cost to the contributor, freedom of choice to help, and possible threats to the contributor's status.

An experimental study of volunteering as a bone marrow donor concluded that self-sacrificing behavior is positively related to the severity of consequences faced by others and negatively related to the severity of costs incurred by the donor himself (Schwartz 1970).

Dependency is a critical dimension in the elicitation of altruistic behavior, however little investigation has focused on dependency as an appeal for a charitable organization. The notable exception shows that for a campus blood donation drive, males responded more to an appeal based on equity, while females responded more to an appeal based on the dependency of others (Fink et. al. 1975).

Interpersonal Attractiveness and Individual Behavior.  Attraction toward a victim has been shown to be another mediator of the reinforcement value of an altruistic response (Kelley and Byrne 1976). This finding has been demonstrated across a number of situations including the return of lost papers that contain a description of the owner (Benson, Karabenick and Lerner 1976), help giving in a supervisor-worker dyad (Berkowitz and Friedman 1967), and across a number of different types of attractiveness: a) association with moral transgression or need off psychological help (Bryan and Davenport 1968), b) race and nationality (Bryan and Test 1967), c) the legitimacy of their need (Frisch and Greenberg 1968), and d) the amount of prior help attributed to them (Pruitt 1968; Greenglass 1969).

The effects of interpersonal attractiveness in a charitable giving setting are either uninvestigated or unpublished. However the attractiveness of the needy person has received extensive use as a mediator of giving in promotional campaigns. The Easter seals poster children provide one example of attractive others who are promoted as victims in need.

Altruistic Models of Appropriate Individual Behavior.  An altruistic model may be defined as either a person or the instructions given by that person that indicates what response or action should be taken within a situational context. In the case of experiments, these models are not intended to be identified as confederates of the experimenter.

Behavioral models have been shown to increase the probability of altruistic behavior in different situations: volunteering to help fix a flat tire, and contributing to a Salvation Army kettle (Bryan and Test 1967), blood donorship (Rushton and Campbell 1977).

In contrast to the behavioral models of altruistic behavior investigated by Bryan and Test, Darley and Batson (1973) and Greenwald (1975) considered the use of verbal models depicted through parables read by the subject. This technique, analogous to media presentation, increased the probability of helping behavior by more than 50%.

A test of the relative strength of behavioral and verbal models was conducted by Bryan and Walbeck (1969), who found that a behavioral model had greater effect than verbal instructions when tested with school children. Instructions were given that indicated either charity, greed, or neutrality, while the model practiced charity. The charitable model influenced the response of children more than did the incongruent communications treatments.

The evidence that people may act charitably upon observing the charitable actions of others suggests that models exhibiting charitable behavior be used when organizations solicit funds from individual donors.

Models of Group Helping Behavior.  The influence of models of group helping behavior differ from models that influence individual behavior in that norms of performance and non-performance exist independently of what the individual would prefer to do. Schachter and Hall (1952) observed that students were more likely to volunteer, but less likely to follow through when the majority of a classroom group appeared to volunteer. Similarly, bystanders may model the failure of other bystanders to respond to pleas of help where the reaction (or lack thereof) is the behavioral norm (Darley and Latane 1968). Thus individual behavior may be a function of attractiveness of helpful others, but behavior within a group situation is different. The likelihood of displaying helping behavior is a function of the attribution of responsibility for the fate of another to oneself.

Internalization of Behavior into the Value System

Social Responsibility as a Norm.  The norm of social responsibility refers to the social norm that dictates that an individual acting alone must "get involved" or "feel responsible" for the safety and well being of another. Social responsibility influences internalized individual behavior rather than behavior directly supported by group interaction.

Socially responsible behavior is mediated by a number of variables. Darley and Latane (1968) investigated the effects of social context on altruistic behavior. In this test of the effects of group presence on individual behavior, altruistic behavior was displayed most often when self-attribution of responsibility for the fate of another was highest. Similar results were observed by Zuckerman et. al., (1977). Thus social responsibility is mediated in part by the model of action or inaction displayed by the group to which the individual belongs. Other mediators of socially responsible behavior include the amount of feedback received from the needy person (Tilker 1970). Berkowitz and Daniels (1964) found that those who had previously received help tended to exhibit socially responsible behavior. Similarly, Rutherford and Mussen (1968) found a relationship between generosity displayed by nursery school boys and the warmness and nurturance perceived in their fathers. However there has not been specific research investigating the relationships between norms of social responsibility and charitable giving. It is therefore inadvisable to interpret any giving act as directly mediated by a specific normative condition. Krebs (1970) points out that

"a particular response may be predicted on the basis of a norm...If it occurs, the norm is said to have had an effect. If it does not occur, the situation is said to fall outside the range of the norm".

Although it is certain that a multitude of social norms form much of the societal structure, more empirical evidence is needed to determine the elicitation patterns needed to operationalize norms of social responsibility as they apply to charitable giving.

Commitment.  Commitment refers to the binding of oneself to a behavioral act. This resistance to behavioral change involves two basic features: irrevocability of actions that evidence commitment, and the presence of reward-cost implications to the giver.

Within the charitable giving framework, we are concerned with two forms of commitment. First, resistance to change in all positive attitudes about giving to a favored charitable organization, and secondly the maintaining of giving behavior, thus resisting conformity to non-giving behavior.

In contrast to conformity which is dictated by group norms and moves one away from individual behavior, commitment is the internalization of a value such that it is stable and resistant to change. Commitment has been shown to be mediated by such variables as confidence in one's ability and the notoriety of the commitment.

Deutsch and Gerard (1955) showed that subjects participating in a face to face interaction (operationalization of notoriety) exhibited either high independence or high compliance to the interacting other. However subjects who interacted anonymously and did not participate in a face to face manner tended to become uninvolved and were mediocre in both independence and compliance. In total, commitment may be viewed as the strength and endurance of the individual's belief system about an object, subject, or organization, within a situation that mediates behavior.

Commitment as Interpersonal Attractiveness.   Private acceptance of the beliefs of individual others has been shown to be mediated by attraction to others. Attraction may be synonymous with commitment in this case, since the motivation to attraction is not one of reward, but rather of private acceptance of the values displayed by some attractive "other".

Kiesler and Kiesler (1970) suggest that similarity of opinion in the Hiderian tradition contributes to commitment (Heider 1958). If another person believes the same things we believe (private acceptance), then we will desire to be more like that other person in all regards. Identification with attractive others leads to commitment in that similarity of opinion increases generalization to other behavior, increases affect, and results in behavior more congruent with behavior displayed by the other person.

The development of commitment is based in part on our private belief that if we act like attractive others, they will like us more, and we will be rewarded both by the attractive other and by outsiders who will perceive us as more attractive.

Commitment and Models of Group Behavior.  The differentiation between commitment and compliance as mediated by group behavior is a delicate problem.

Thibaut and Riecken (1955) report that the status that others possess influences our commitments to the values they evidence, our perceptions, and our liking of others. The relationship between status and commitment is thought to be a function of our perceptions and liking of others. In a blood donating context, where perceptions of motivation in a compliance situation were evaluated, high status others were viewed as more self directed, internally motivated, committed, and were liked mere than were low status others. Thus persons identify, like, and accept high status others more than low status others.

Medow and Zander (1965) found that when the individual perceived himself of higher status, he/she displayed more involvement with group goals, more concern that the group be correct, and perceived greater power over group decisions.

The length of future interaction perceived by the subject also influences the degree of commitment to the group. Kiesler and Corbin (1965) showed that group influence was limited when commitment to a future interaction was absent. However commitment to models of group behavior were mediated by at least two other constructs: the cohesiveness of the group and alternative groups available for membership. Kiesler and Corbin showed that group cohesiveness influences commitment to the group especially when subjects are minimally attracted and then made more cohesive by some event, such as extension of the time horizon of interaction.

Commitment has been defined as the private acceptance of norms and opinions of either individuals or groups to which we are attracted. Extrapolation of the reported findings to a charitable giving framework would indicate that similarity of attractive others, the perceived status of self and others, the cohesiveness of the organization, length of commitment, and membership alternatives all influence the degree of commitment toward a charitable organization.

To summarize this review of the motivations for charitable giving, it is necessary that we refer to fig. 1., the proposed process model. Charitable giving is a developmental process leading to the internalization of generalized beliefs about charitable giving and specific beliefs about giving to designated organizations. The obvious question is one of how this process may be applied to the solicitation of charitable contributions.

The answer is in the movement of potential contributors through the stages of the behavioral processes that are related to giving to a specific organization. The movement of potential contributor markets through the process model is realistic given the proper promotional appeals. It is posited that the degree of internalization (and commitment) of attitudes increases as this movement within the process occurs. Movement through an adoption process type model is a realistic goal for marketing even though concern is with giving to a charitable organization and not product purchase per se. The task is one of moving the potential contributor from mere compliance to a fund raiser's request (where a nuisance contribution of $1-$5 is made to get rid of the fund raiser), to the level of high commitment (where a major portion of all contributions made by the donor are given to that specific organization). The development process that results in increased commitment and internalization of values is evidenced in a study of kidney donors by Marshall and Fellner (1977). Enduring changes in perceptions, attitudes, and motivations about giving in general were observed for the kidney donors. But more important, self perception changed, making the person view himself as more altruistic. Clearly sacrifice is in part responsible for the shift in internalized values, resulting in enduring commitment.


Implementation of market strategy to shift contributors to higher levels of contribution may vary widely according to the process stage through which potential contributors are to be moved. Figure 2 presents a brief list of approaches and appeals that may be used to move potential contributors to commitment.



Although the suggested approaches are far from exhaustive, they do provide a first and descriptive step to applying the mediators of charitable giving. Future researchers dealing with the proposed or similar frameworks are encouraged to begin validation of the proposed model stages. Practitioners are encouraged to apply these and other appeals that address specific stages leading to behavioral commitment.

NOTE: Figure 2 is in very abbreviated form due to space limitations. The lengthy bibliography has been similarly deleted. These materials are available from the author on request.