Can Thinking About Giving Really Make You More Generous?

If you’ve ever made a conscious effort to be thankful for the blessings in your life, you have likely come to the realization that this practice can have a profoundly positive effect on your mood.

But have you ever considered what would happen if you flipped your focus, and instead of concentrating on what others have given you, reflected only on the times when you’ve been most generous to others? Like when you’ve helped a family member or friend, made a donation, or volunteered your time.

We certainly hadn’t. That is, until we stumbled across a very interesting summary of a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science. The study tested a simple question: can reflecting on the times we have given to others make us more generous people going forward?

As it turns out, the study also provides some interesting insights into the psychology behind fundraising and donating.

Study #1: Does Thinking About Giving Really Improve Fundraising Performance?

To carry out their experiment, the researchers recruited a bunch of undergraduate students. All of the students worked for their university soliciting contributions from alumni over the phone. The researchers split the students into two randomly selected groups and measured the average number of calls made per hour by each group over a two-week period.

Then they instructed participants in both groups to start keeping a journal. One group was instructed to write about times when they had given to others. The other group was told to write about times when they felt grateful for receiving something. Finally, the researchers measured the average number of calls made per hour for each group during the two weeks following the journaling exercises.

When the results came in, the group that wrote about giving to others increased their average calls made per hour by 29%. The group that wrote about feeling grateful for things they’d received experienced no increase in average calls made per hour. Importantly, all students were receiving a fixed hourly wage, so there were no outside incentives that could have impacted the effort they were putting forth.

The results suggest that the act of reflecting on prior instances of giving led the students to increase the effort they were making on behalf of the university in their role as fundraisers. Simply put, thinking about prior giving made them more helpful employees.

Study #2: Can Thinking About Giving Make You More Generous?

In a second study, the researchers broke up a pool of college students into three different groups. The first group wrote about times when they had given to others. The second group wrote about times when they had received something from others. And the third group (the control group) wrote about three foods they had eaten recently.

When the students in this second study came to collect their payment for participating in the initial survey, the researchers presented them with an option: take your full payment or give a portion back to help earthquake victims. Consistent with the findings of the earlier study, the group that reflected on times when they had given to others had the most enthusiastic response to the request for donations. 46.15% of students in that group made a donation, compared to 21.43% of students in the group that wrote about receiving something, and just 13.33% of students in the control group.

Reflections on the Study Results

As the findings above suggest, it appears that reflecting on times when we have given to others can make us more generous with our efforts (the fundraising example) as well as more generous with our wallets (the donation example). So why does thinking about our past giving make us more likely to give in the future?

The study summary mentions a hypothesis for why this happens. By thinking about times when we have given to others, we start to view ourselves as people who are generous, helpful, and willing to act. This, the summary suggests, could explain why thinking about past giving behavior leads to increased generosity in the future. Seems like a reasonable supposition.

But after reading all of this, we couldn’t help but wonder if there are actually ways that these insights can be used in practice? Can nonprofits really leverage findings like these to help boost donations? It’d be pretty tough to make your fundraisers do some journaling before your next fundraising campaign, but there might be ways of communicating with your donors and fundraisers that help reinforce their past generosity.

For instance, you might use language that creates an assumed frame that the donor is a generous person: “We really count on generous people like you to help move our mission forward. Your continued support means the world to us.” On some level, rhetorical devices like this invite the reader to think of themselves as a generous person.

These are just off the cuff thoughts, but it seems like there might be opportunities in your regular communications with donors (newsletters, appeals, thank you’s) to reinforce the individual’s sense that they are a giving person. And as the study suggests, this could lead to increased generosity in the future.

What do you think, are these just interesting factoids or could they actually be used in nonprofit development work? Let us know in the comments…

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Photo Credit: Flickr User Howdy I’m H. Michael Karshis

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