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  • Writer's pictureDr Cassandra Chapman

How do social norms influence charity preferences?



Social norms are perceptions of what other people typically do. It is well established that perceived norms affect whether people give to charity at all as well as how much they donate when they do give. But do social norms also influence which causes people choose to support?


For our new study, just published in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, we surveyed 1,735 people in 117 countries to ascertain three things:

  1. Do different social groups perceive different charitable causes as normative recipients of their group’s charitable donations?

  2. To what extent is there consensus within groups about normative charitable causes?

  3. Do normative causes align with the actual charity selections of group members?


Do social groups perceive different normative causes?


Yes. We found different normative giving profiles for men, women, older people, younger people, conservatives, progressives, religious people, and the nonreligious. Each of these groups identified causes for which group giving preferences diverge. For example:

  • Five times as many men as women said that their gender group typically supports political organizations,

  • Six times as many younger as older people said that their age group supports sports and recreation nonprofits,

  • Twice as many progressives as conservatives said their political group supports environmental causes, and

  • Seventeen times as many religious as nonreligious people said their group supports religious causes (the largest and most obvious normative difference observed in the study).


Do people agree on the normative causes for their groups?


Sometimes. We considered that a cause reached consensus when at least 75% of group members agreed that the cause either was or was not typically supported. Consensus was not always reached but some causes were strongly endorsed as normative (or, more often, strongly endorsed as nonnormative). For example:

  • Women agreed that women do not typically support sports causes (only 15% endorsing as normative),

  • Young people agreed that young people typically do not support religious causes (11%),

  • Conservatives agreed that conservatives do not typically support animal protection charities (22%), and

  • Religious people agreed that religious people typically do not support research nonprofits (22%).


Are group norms reflected in actual charity preferences?


Sometimes. When comparing differences between groups in their perceptions of normative causes with differences between groups in the actual charities they gave to, we found different degrees of alignment. Alignment between norms and preferences was not very strong for gender- and age-based groups but was much stronger for political and religious groups. We speculate that this may be due to the relative self-importance of the different identities or pragmatic factors like households making joint giving decisions, with households likely being diverse in age and gender but more similar in political orientation and religion.


How could nonprofit marketers and fundraisers leverage norms?


Certain causes were found to be more popular than others. Social service and health charities were frequently supported, while law, political, cultural, and sports charities were rarely supported. Nevertheless, the current data suggest that there will be certain donor segments that may be more ready to give to relatively unpopular causes because of norms. For example, fundraisers for political organizations appear to face a particularly tough time in recruiting new supporters. Our data suggest that fundraising efforts for political causes will be most effective when directed toward older men with political views, especially if gender, age, and political group identities can be made salient in the campaign.


Norm-supported identities can also be used to frame appeals. Fundraisers can incorporate language typically used by group members to subtly appeal to their identities or more explicitly talk about the alignment between the cause and donors' relevant identities.


Greatest alignment between normative causes and observed charity selections were found for identities based on political orientation and religion. Framing campaigns around these identities may be effective where group norms align with giving to the cause in question. For example, religious charities may wish to frame their campaigns around conservatism or high religiosity as these groups have norms consistent with giving to religious causes. On the other hand, animal protection or culture and arts charities may wish to steer away from religious framing and instead frame campaigns around secular values to evoke supportive non-religious identities.


Overall, the study provides valuable insights into the ways in which social norms guide charitable giving decisions. Nonprofit marketers should consider these findings when developing their fundraising strategies to ensure that their campaigns are effective and sensitive to the normative preferences of potential donors. By understanding the role of social norms in donor behavior, nonprofit organizations can better connect with donors and achieve their fundraising goals.


Read the published article here.

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