The Big Charity.


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It is the current coalition Government’s highly publicised ambition that we build a stronger society – a Big Society in fact. Quite a lot of focus has been given to the action of ‘empowering communities and opening up public services, provoking both positive and negative reactions, but not so much attention has been given to the aim to encourage social action. The stated intention is to encourage people to give what they have, be that their time, their money or anything that supports good causes and helps make life better for all.

Last week the UK Cabinet Office released their green paper on giving which outlined its approach to fulfill this ambition. It also released several supporting essays, each focusing on different aspects of giving. The green paper is the first step in creating a more giving nation through the combined power of a less centralised state, the use of new (social) technologies and insights from behavioural science – and it’s this last area that got me interested.

The Government’s newly formed Behavioural Insight Team has been created to help ‘nudge’ us into living better and more sociable lives (read more about the ‘nudge’ team in this article from the Independent) and change the current fact that 8% of the population contribute 47% of the total charitable donations. Of course, part of this process is to make it easier for people to give by creating more routes to giving. Examples such as the websites and are cited in the green paper as well as more innovative ideas like the option to donate at cashpoints and the ‘Round Pound’ credit cards that round up your purchase prices and donate the extra pennies to a charity of your choice. One of the wackiest ideas I’ve heard (but hasn’t yet been put into production) is the ‘SNUZNLUZ’ alarm clock. You set the alarm on the clock to the time you wish to wake up but then if you oversleep, or decide to award yourself a few minutes extra doze time, it connects to your bank account and starts to donate to charity. Would you ever oversleep again? The effect is either that you become a more effective and punctual person or a charity benefits from your sloth.

These examples are fascinating and all involve catching the giving nature of a person at a particular moment, enough to get them to invest in an aid to sticking to their giving intentions. However, how do you change people’s long-term attitude to giving and volunteering?

Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist from the University of New Mexico, says that to promote charity and volunteering, we need to work with human nature as it is. From an evolutionary standpoint “Giving away resources through conspicuous charity, or time through conspicuous volunteering, is a costly, hard?to?fake signal that one has abundant resources, time, and empathy. Thus, charity and volunteering increase the giver’s social status, moral prestige, family honour, and group reputation – which in turn brought survival or reproductive benefits to the giver”. So giving people more opportunities to give these signals in a non-boastful manner would increase the potency of the signal. It’s often the case that people don’t want to be seen bragging about their charitable work (well, most people) but secretly would like people to know about it somehow. So this job falls into the lap of charities to provide channels that celebrate the actions of their volunteers. Geoffrey Miller suggests that this has two beneficial effects:

1. Donors feel happier which has shown to increase the donor’s physical health, mental health, well-being, self esteem and sense of social connectedness;

2. When people see others behaving altruistically, this creates social norms that fosters general altruism in others and the spread of giving.

This echos David Hapern’s comment that;

“Our behaviour is generally far more influenced by what we see other people doing than what we think they should be doing.” (From Giving, well-being & behavioural science).

One method that charities use to great effect is what I call the ‘challenge donation’. This is where people are sponsored to carry out a challenge such as running a marathon or doing a bungee jump. In the eyes of evolutionary psychology this gives a signal that the person has an adventurous personality and also a generous nature which increases their attractiveness in a potential mate. It adheres to the old adage of don’t just say it (“I’m very adventurous and generous”), do it (“I’ve just done a parachute jump to raise money for orphans in Haiti”). This also has the built in megaphone to announce your personality to others as you need to spread the word in order to get sponsorship. Everyone’s a winner.

Overall, the Giving green paper is a very exciting step to using the type of creative thinking that behavioural economists, psychologists and designers have been promoting to create real and nationwide change. It’s a shame that some of the press have decided to spin the fact that there is now a department that thinks about this as dabbling in ‘psychological tricks’ and ‘mental brainwashing’. I agree with Aiden Truss in his blog post that this smacks of lazy journalism which has probably not even read the Thaler & Sunstein book ‘Nudge’ which very clearly explains the concepts of libertarian paternalism and choice architecture. However, my greatest fear is that the reams of research and evidence won’t get through to the very people who will benefit the most – the charities. In my experience working with several charitable organisations (note the subtle trumpet blowing there) they are mostly made up of well-meaning people, often with a personal connection to the cause they’re working for. They are not the types of people who read and review psychological papers, behavioural essays or even Government papers that directly concern them. The result is that these caring people throw money and time at problems without fully understanding the best methods to increase their effectiveness. So the question is can we encourage the teams inside charities to spend time reviewing the work and consider how to implement the knowledge into their activities?

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One Comment

  1. Tayo Medupin added these pithy words on January 19, 2011 | Permalink

    Hi, though you might also be interested in the new initiative set up by Every Single One Of Us Ltd which allows people to earn rewards including charitable donations by answering quick and simple market research questions from their Facebook Inbox.

    Not as innovative as the snoozing alarm clock but I hope it will also encourage people to build donations into daily rituals and corporate habits.

    We’re offering 4x the usual reward for the first four response from the first 150 people who join before the 31st of Jan 2011. I hope this can help in some way towards some people’s fundraising efforts. All the best,

    Tayo Medupin
    Director, Every Single One Of Us

    ps. I’m also excited that you discuss Nudges as the first company to use the Every Single One Of Us platform is called Human Dialogue ( and uses many of the behavioural economic principles set forward by Thalar and Sunstein to help mobile marketers be less Econ and more Human!

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