A Research Framework to Improve Real-World Giving Behavior

Cross-posted from The Life You Can Save's blog.


What’s the best way to “sell” the idea of good giving? The short answer is, nobody really knows.  

Marketing has been used to sell just about everything, so it stands to reason that it should be possible to “sell” good giving through marketing as well. But we’re missing the answers to crucial basic questions: What, exactly, are we marketing? Who are we marketing it to? Who will be doing the marketing? Where will people ultimately buy the product?  

Complicating matters, marketing good giving is much more complex than selling people on a particular charity, or even on a particular intermediary like a charity evaluator. We want to “sell” the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that produce effective giving behavior. This is the only way to create a sustainable culture of good giving, robust to rapidly evolving social problems, charitable interventions, and information.

If we don’t know the best way to sell good giving, or even what the “product” really is in a practical sense, how can we find out? And how can we do so as efficiently as possible?

This is the first of a series of blog posts that offers a research framework for answering those questions, and hopes to stir a broader discussion about them. I hope this framework will be of interest to academics, nonprofit practitioners, and funders, and would like to collaborate with these constituencies to refine it and put it into practice. (Funders are in particularly short supply; there are shovel-ready projects that are bottlenecked on money.) If you’d like to get involved, please contact me here.

Below, you’ll find links to subsequent posts in the series and a brief description of its main arguments. This page will be updated as new posts are published.

The 2nd post in the series discusses three General Principles for Applied Giving Research, namely: 1) Improving the quality of giving (getting people to do more good with each dollar given) is more valuable than improving the quantity of giving (getting people to give more dollars); 2) The most valuable research is actionable research; and 3) Researchers and implementers should look for opportunities to “paddle downstream.”

Post 3 discusses High Leverage Research Questions, and argues it would be particularly valuable for giving researchers to focus on these specific questions: How can we design donor intermediaries, platforms, and resources that promote better giving decisions AND that donors will want to use? How do personal differences impact the way people think about giving? Which core beliefs lead to good giving behavior, and which core beliefs obstruct it?

Standardizing Giving Research with the Giving Game is the 4th post in the series. It discusses the benefits giving researchers can reap if they adopt a standard experimental format for studying where donors give (similar to how many researchers have used the Dictator Game to study generosity). It goes on to argue that the Giving Game (where players allocate money between two or more good causes) is a format that is particularly well suited to producing actionable giving research. Note: Parts of this post are quite technical.

The 5th post (forthcoming) will elaborate on the idea of numerous researchers studying different aspects of giving behavior all using the Giving Game framework. It will explain the benefits (and feasibility) of aggregating data from experimental Giving Games and natural Giving Games that happen “in the real world” into the same database, arguing that doing so would promote meta-analysis and an understanding of how findings generalize to “the field”.  (Note: An early prototype of this database already exists for Giving Games that have been run as philanthropy education workshops).

Comments (6)

Comment author: adamaero  (EA Profile) 17 October 2018 07:35:53PM *  1 point [-]

What, exactly, are we marketing?

  • Sacrifice: not so small as to feel meaningless and not so extreme as to be unreasonable.

E.g., not donating a couple cents every century and not reducing oneself to poverty or martyrdom.

    • GiveWell (1)
    • Animal Charity Evaluators (2)

Who are we marketing it to?

Various individuals who have extra money, and are not caught up buying the next phone and bigger car*:

(1) Empathetic liberals (I guess), those who haven't been rich all their life, altruists, etc.

Not hard conservatives, not those who haven't given others a second thought, not rationalists.

(2) veg*ans, and others I don't know how to categorize specifically...

Who will be doing the marketing?

Almost all effective altruists except those who are CEOs of non-EA based orgs. In other words, those who are not forever swamped in work (or certain specific problems). Should all EAs? No, not really. Some know too little, and some convey the message poorly.

Where will (audience) ultimately buy the product?

The "beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that produce effective giving behavior" should not be thought of as something to hard sell. It should be sometimes thought as bringing simple awareness, and building a dialogue with others.

  • "not going to waste it on a big house, a new car every year and a bunch of friends who want a big house and a new car every year.” - Larry (Bill Murray) The Razor’s Edge 1984 movie ~ 1944 book.

Related Research


We posit that altruistic donors are more driven by the actual impact of their donation, and thus information to reinforce or enhance perceived impacts will drive higher donations. On the other hand, for warm glow donors, information on impacts may actually deter giving [because it's not emotionally based]. This distinction is much along the lines of Kahneman (2003), in which System I decisions (peripheral decisions which use intuition and mere reaction, but no deliberation) are “warm glow” decisions, and System II decisions (deliberative decisions requiring conscious reasoning and thought) are “altruism” decisions.

Comment author: Jon_Behar 19 October 2018 09:39:22PM 0 points [-]

Thanks for sharing these thoughts!

I particularly like the “giving fast” vs “giving slow” distinction. One of the reasons I think donor intermediaries are so important is because they often nudge donors to give thoughtfully instead of instinctively. For instance, Donor Advised Funds represent an enormous opportunity both because of the size of the market and because they let donors separate the decisions of “whether/how much to give” and “why to give.”

Comment author: beah 04 October 2018 08:59:08PM 1 point [-]

Might there be sweet spots to be found somewhere along the continuum of "quality" of giving (the effectiveness of each dollar given) stopping short of, say, GiveWell recommend charities or even EA approved causes?

Most ordinary people don't give because they generally feel charitable and want to do something, anything, so long as it's charitable. The are compelled to give by an event or a narrative that tugs on them. Most EA instruments don't really do this, of course. At least not in the initial consumer interaction. Say someone was compelled to give by the recent family separation crisis in the US. The cause wouldn't ever land on an EA list but I imagine that within it there are some charities 10x or maybe 100x more effective than others. It would be valuable to help people chose those charities, given that there's essentially a 0% chance that the money in question will be funneled to bed nets or the long term future.

In short, I'm interested in whether there are ways to bring a watered down version of EA to a mass audience, with a net positive effect on effective dollars given.

Comment author: Elityre 08 October 2018 04:36:07PM 4 points [-]

I'm not sure how much having a "watered down" version of EA ideas in the zeitgeist helps because, I don't have a clear sense of how effective most charities are.

If the difference between the median charity and the most impactful charity is 4 orders of magnitude ($1 to the most impactful charities does as much good as $1000 to the the median charity), then even a 100x improvement from the median charity is not very impactful. It's still only 1% as good a donating to the best charity. If that were the case, it's probably more efficient to just aim to get more people to adopt the whole EA mindset.

On the other hand, if the variation is much smaller, it might be the case that a 100x improvement get's you to about half of the impact per dollar of the best charities.

Which world we're living in matters a lot for whether we should invest in this strategy.

That said, promotion of EA principles, like cost effectiveness and EV estimates, separate from the EA brand, seem almost universally good, and extend far beyond people's choice of charities.

Comment author: Jon_Behar 08 October 2018 05:51:56PM 1 point [-]

Definitely agree on the value of spreading basic principles, though I think we also need to focus on some charity-specific themes given that we want to change giving behavior. In addition to the general frameworks you mention, I think it’s valuable to promote “intentional”, “informed”, and “impactful” giving as these are very uncontroversial ideas. And while it’s most valuable when someone buys into all three of those notions in a big way, there’s also value to getting a lot of people to buy in partially. If millions more people see the value of informed giving, incentives will improve and new products will emerge to meet that demand.

FWIW, I think the more accessible approach makes sense even in a world with huge variation in impact across charities. I think you’ll get more money to the “elite” charities if you have a culture where people seek out the best cancer charity they can find, the best local org they can find, etc vs trying “to get more people to adopt the whole EA mindset.”

Comment author: Jon_Behar 04 October 2018 11:35:28PM 2 points [-]

Absolutely! I think getting people to give to “best in class” charities has to be a part of any serious effort to improve giving on a large scale. Many donors are locked into a particular cause but would be open to giving more effectively in the same space. In causes with a lot of money and a big difference between the best charities and “default” charities, that presents a big opportunity. And of course there’s no guarantee EA is getting its cause prioritization right in the first place.

One “softer” framework I like is encouraging donors to be intentional, informed, and impactful when they give. It’s hard for people to disagree with any of these things, and they should all promote better giving on the margins.