Making Charitable Giving More Competent

Illustration of a dollar bill with a head on one side and a heart on the other, exchanging hands

Illustration by Paul Garland

Psychologists and moral philosophers have long known that positive emotions drive charitable giving, and nonprofits rely on this impulse to help others when they solicit donations. But what if some of these same warm feelings actually prevent donors from making the most effective choices when they do give?

Joshua Greene and Lucius Caviola, Harvard experts in moral reasoning and effective altruism, see a problem when philanthropy is fueled more by emotion than by reason. Taking note of cognitive biases and emotional preferences, the researchers were able to effect real-world changes in donors’ behavior by offering them the chance to give with their heads as well as their hearts. Here’s how they did it.

As a starting point, the pair drew on their extensive knowledge and prior studies of charitable giving—both theirs and others—that suggest most people typically give based on some kind of personal connection to a worthy cause. But that approach by donors poses a challenge, say Greene, a professor of psychology, and Caviola, a postdoctoral researcher in his lab, because when people let their emotions completely steer their choices, they overlook charities that have an impact on a much wider scale. “We want to give to charities that are close to our hearts and that we find personally meaningful,” says Caviola. “Unfortunately, our feelings are not necessarily a proxy for cost effectiveness.”

Greene offers the example of paying to train a guide dog to help someone who is visually impaired, which costs about $50,000 in the United States. “In other countries, you can cure somebody of blindness or prevent them from becoming blind due to trachoma, a bacterial eye infection, with a surgery that costs less than $100,” he says. “That represents a difference that is hundreds or even thousands of times more effective.”

Yet convincing donors to give more effectively is not so easy. People harbor a range of cognitive biases that, combined with their emotions, hamper their ability to give where it matters most. Many only want to donate to organizations they feel more socially connected to, point out Greene and Caviola in their 2021 paper, “The Psychology of (In)effective Altruism.” Others only want to help those in need today rather than future generations. Many, it turns out, care deeply about doing the greatest good with their money but feel conflicted because of their desire to give to a personally meaningful cause. In the end, those competing motivations led Greene and Caviola to theorize people may indeed be willing to support effective charities so long as they could also support their personal favorites. “Instead of telling people, ‘You should do this or that,’ which no one likes to hear,” says Greene, “we decided to just ask them, ‘Why don’t you do both?’”

They posed that experimental question, along with a range of others, to a group of volunteers in a series of recently published studies. The results were telling.

In their initial survey, the researchers tracked how 895 participants would hypothetically donate $100. Under the control condition, in which volunteers were restricted to giving the money to their favorite charity or to a highly effective one, only 18 percent opted for the effective choice. But when the researchers provided the option of equally dividing a donation between the two charities, 51.6 percent of respondents chose the 50/50 split, increasing total donations to the effective charity by 76 percent.

In a follow-up study, participants said they found the option to split their donation almost as personally meaningful as if they had given everything to their favorite charity, with the added satisfaction of knowing their gift had had an even greater impact. “This study shows that people really like giving with the heart and with the head,” Greene says, “and that the bundling option allows them to get an emotional boost by being both connected and effective, and that overall makes it very appealing.”

In another survey, the researchers also explored how participants rated other people’s giving patterns. Respondents described those who gave everything to the personal charity as “highly warm, but not particularly competent.” Those who gave everything to the highly effective charity were rated highly competent, but not especially warm. But those who bundled their donations were judged highly for both characteristics. “We’re not saying do this because other people will think you’re wonderful,” says Greene. “But we think it speaks to how people see themselves, and how it further reflects this split in people’s motivations.”

To try to “advertise and incentivize” their favorite/effective bundled options, the researchers also offered (in a subsequent study) to match donations, increasing the matching funds whenever the participants chose to give more of their money to the effective charity. That experiment yielded a 55 percent increase in funds donated to the effective organizations. When the researchers asked participants if they would be willing to support the matching fund themselves, 34 percent of donors agreed.

Then, in a major departure from their daily routine of generating academic research and scholarly papers, Greene and Caviola took their knowledge of how human psychology can improve philanthropy for a test drive in the real world and created

The online platform enables users to donate to a charity of their choice and to one of nine highly effective charities focused on a range of issues from global health and poverty to animal rights and clean energy. (Donors can also opt to allocate some or all of their gift to the site’s matching funds.) Since the site went live in 2020, it has raised more than $2.3 million, with more than half the money allocated to the effective charities. And because of the matching option, “The whole thing has been self-sustaining,” says Greene. “All of these people are getting a significant amount added to their donations, and the funds to do that are coming from a subset of donors who choose to pay it forward.”

Both researchers say seeing their work play out in real time has been a career highlight. In his writing and research, Greene has long challenged people to think about how to lead more ethical lives. But this work, he says, is different. “You run this experiment in a little social scientific petri dish, and you think it makes sense that it could have this impact on the real world. But to actually see it happening is just thrilling.”

Caviola agreed, calling it his “most unique” and “coolest project because of the applied, real-world angle.” He says the ultimate goal of their work is to fundamentally shift how people think about giving. “Giving Multiplier is a small, iterative step,” says Caviola, “but there’s so much more to do.”

Read more articles by: Colleen Walsh

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