The motivation to give

Have you or do you intend to donate money, supplies, time, or blood to aid Haiti earthquake relief efforts?(polls)

Some gnashing of teeth occurred online today as the calls for donations for earthquake relief in Haiti increase. It was prompted by this survey on CNN.


Fifty-six percent of those who bothered to take the unscientific survey are not giving to earthquake relief.

Who gives and who doesn’t? ABC’s 20/20 researched this in its own unscientific way a few years ago by comparing Sioux Falls with San Francisco, and found that the decision to give to charity was not necessarily related to ability to give.

Perhaps we have a moral responsibility to contribute to disasters, but other research says there’s more to it than the goodness of our hearts. The New York Times cited a 2005 study by the Center for Philanthropy.

But if giving were driven just by moral sensibility, how can inconsistencies like the outpouring of donations after 9/11 or Katrina be explained when compared with the relatively little that has been given to the cause of AIDS or famine in Africa, scourges that dwarf anything seen in this country?

Maybe that is the point. If we can identify with the victim, we are more likely to donate. Americans have little problem imagining themselves flooded out of house and home; but how many can relate to a Pakistani villager?

Don’t put all your money on empathy, though; too much can actually inhibit philanthropy. In 1991, Dr. Peter E. Warren at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, tried to increase charitable giving by encouraging empathy with needy people. He sent a letter soliciting donations to a well-known charity to a random sample of 2,648 subjects. The letter either encouraged people to imagine themselves in someone else’s position or to consider that their charity would provide concrete help. The empathy manipulation failed. By contrast, people who were told that their donations were most likely to be effective in helping recipients responded by giving more.

In any event, it’s a glass-half-full vs. glass-half-empty situation. Perhaps it’s true that only 44 percent of Americans have donated to the Haiti relief effort, that’s still significant.

“We’re hearing that this is breaking all records,” Sandra Miniutti of Charity Navigator, told USA Today.

Through this morning, the Red Cross reports it has raised more than $3 million dollars through text messaging ($10 is added to the phone bill). One-point-two percent of the donations came from Minnesota, according to MGive, which is coordinating the Red Cross texting effort (link doesn’t work in Firefox). That’s good for 20th among all states. Minnesota is 21st in population.

Meanwhile, on the ground in Haiti, the Free Methodist World Mission Haiti Relief Team has just uploaded this video:

  • People are confronted with a struggle with international response, which is often not perceived domestically. I have repeatedly heard this week “just send money, not supplies”. While I appreciate it is solid advice … there’s the back of my station wagon stuffed with kids’ clothes I planned to donate to a local church which works with a shelter. Well … I’m a bit cash-strapped (on an American scale) … I would happily give the clothes to a disaster relief program, but people don’t want what I have to give.

    I think we put off people when we say “just money”. Yet what should be done, when that really is the need?