Ice Buckets and the Psychology of Giving

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Ice Bucket Challenge

November 16, 2014; New York Times

The end of the calendar year is traditionally seen as a time when people are feeling generous and are making donations to charities. What better time, then, to ask why people respond to some giving mechanisms, such as the recently omnipresent ice-bucket challenge, but not to others. A recent op-ed piece in the New York Times by Ian McGugan asks this very question.

According to the article, researchers are fairly convinced that in many cases we like to give for very selfish reasons, and this may have fed the ice-bucket brigade. For example, we may wish to give to have our names on a list, thereby enhancing our reputation, or to keep up with others in the community who are giving. In the case of the ice-bucketers, the sense is that people were feeding their own narcissism: People could post photos and videos of themselves in highly visible arenas like Twitter and Facebook.

One interesting theory behind group events that benefit charities describes what has been called the “martyrdom effect.” Dousing yourself with very cold water probably does not feel very good—this writer has not tried it and so cannot speak from personal experience—but a lot of people did it. Marathons and bike-a-thons encourage people to test their endurance travelling many miles. Hundreds of people do it, all in the name of a good cause. But why aren’t there regular “dessert-a-thons,” for example? These experiences, according to one researcher, become more meaningful to us “if blood, sweat, and tears are involved.” We feel we have to experience a little pain or discomfort in the process of being generous—and it’s best if what we have to endure is tied thematically to the cause in question.

“It would not work to have Girl Scouts roll in broken glass to raise money,” said Christopher Olivola of Carnegie Mellon University, who co-wrote the paper on the subject, “and it wouldn’t work to use the ice-bucket challenge to raise money for opera.”

An experiment from 2011 found researchers using the Salvation Army year-end fundraising at a store in Boston to explore people’s reactions to being asked for money. Sometimes, the three researchers would simply ring their bells. At other times, they would make eye contact with shoppers and ask them directly to give. When they were simply ringing the bell, shoppers went about their business as per normal. But when eye contact was made, shoppers would look for ways to avoid the bell-ringers and find other entrances to the store. Even more interesting is that when they asked people for money, the researchers raised 60 percent more than when they simply rang their bells even though the shoppers worked hard to avoid them. We hate to be asked, the researchers found, but we are generous when we are.

Despite the ice-bucket challenge’s popularity and the plethora of new ways to give, Americans are still giving at only about two percent of their incomes. These increasingly ingenious challenges that are popping up are responses to the need to work harder and harder for a slice of a pie that is not getting bigger. The ice-bucket challenge broke through our general distaste for being asked; the exact reasons why are still unclear.—Rob Meiksins

  • Simone Joyaux

    There’s a big difference between fundraising and a gimmick like the ice bucket challenge. Fundraising is a process of understanding the interests and emotions of others, finding common values, nurturing the relationship between the donor (or prospective donor) and the cause.

    Donors give through organizations to fulfill their own aspirations. Emotions trigger donor decisions. In fact, neuroscience proves that all human decisions are triggered by emotions …. Even if we rationalize within seconds. Storytelling is the way to engage people and invite investment. And, loyalty and lifetime value are what matters …. whether it’s consumer buying or donor giving.

    If, by chance (and it’s a big chance), an organization invents a gimmick… And raises lots and lots of money. Yippee. But spending limited resources (e.g., time, opportunity cost, etc.) searching for a gimmick — instead of spending time on what the research shows works…. That’s such a terrible waste.

    The question with something like the ice bucket challenge is: How many of the game players know what ALS is, will remember, or even care? The question is a gimmick or loyalty.

    So often, organizations – from staff to board members – refuse to get good at fundraising. Refuse to follow and apply the research. Refuse to focus on charitable giving. Fundraising is not about money. Fundraising is about the beliefs and values and hearts and souls of donors.

    We will never grow philanthropy (that darn 2% limit of 40+ years) unless we actually focus on philanthropy and its essential partner / servant, fundraising. And we will never grow philanthropy without following the research, doing more research, understanding emotions and and and ….

    Sometimes I just despair.

  • Simone Joyaux

    P.S. Giving through “social identity” and donor psychologically.

    Read Jen Shang’s research and writings. Jen is the world’s first philanthropic psychologist. Here research is seminal. Check her out.

  • Cotton

    When I saw the question, “Why is it that millions of people will pour cold water on themselves but avoid contact with someone asking for a donation?” I immediately said “Narcissism.” When I clicked on your article, it was interesting that your conclusion was the same. What a great marketing technique for a self-absorbed culture! Kudos to whoever thought that up! It’s disgusting that our previously generous society contributes only 2% to help others. We will pay to get any bit of attention, as we are all self-styled pseudo-celebrities, imagining everyone is waiting with baited breath for the next update. Apologies for the caustic comments, but I’ve had it with the ice bucket.

  • Terry Fernsler

    Agreed, Simone. I have seen more than my share of development officers who are not willing to do the work of stewardship. I was a successful development officer, increasing revenue by impressive percentages in short periods of time, simply because there had been no cultivation (and often, no asks at all to particular audiences) prior to my arrival. However, when I could not continue the meteoric increases, chief executives would become restless, looking for more home runs.

    But what is even more troubling to me is the underlying theme of narcissism. Altruism is rarely given equal footing with other reasons for giving anymore. Development officers are trained to appeal to donors’ or prospects’ self-interests. Why this is troubling is that we seemed to have lost the communal and collectivist purposes of having nonprofit organizations–the sharing, or potlatch of living in a society. Ice-bucket fundraising is both a symptom and perpetuation of the focus on individualism. It seems to be leading to an attitude of “if it can’t happen to me, I’ll be nice, but it really is not that important to me.”

    This attitude carries over to other aspects of society: race relations, politics, income equity. It is an attitude that will lead to things getting a lot worse, because we really do live in community, and what happens to one person, affects us all.

  • Sharon

    Although I understand and agree with the importance of relationship building in regards to philanthropic giving, I think there is also room for what is being described as a “gimmick”. I work for a community foundation so am immersed in the traditional relationship approach with donors. My children, as young adults, responded to the ice bucket challenge – why – it was fun – it used social media – it allowed them to engage their friends and at the same time it supported a worthwhile cause. I just think we need to be careful about being too holier than thou on this. There’s room for a wide variety of fundraising efforts.

  • Keenan Wellar

    People who invest in the work of a charity may be random people who wanted to jump on a trending hashtag, but more commonly it is because they know something about the work that is being done, feel that they have a relationship with the organization (and/or a relationship with the change they are creating) and therefore they donate time and money.

    There are more than 3000 charities in my city of just under 1,000,000 and clearly they are not all going to “find their ice bucket challenge.” Probably none of them will. So the work of generating resources to create a social change that benefits our communities is going to continue to be mainly about developing meaningful relationships with funders, donors, and citizens.

    There’s nothing “wrong” with a gimmick that generates interest and enthusiasm for a given cause. What is wrong is to expect that this can and will happen. A focus on trying to invent rare phenomena that will bring in millions is not what the sector is about. Or certainly not what it should be about.