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3 reasons why we don’t give more money to charity

Kelly Dilworth

Giving money to a good cause is good for you, so why don’t we do more of it?

A wealth of research shows that donating to an organization or individuals you believe in can make you happier, more connected and make life feel more meaningful. It also lowers your annual tax burden if you deduct your donations, and it may even improve your health.

According to a February 2016 paper published in the journal Health Psychology, people who give more money to charity tend to have significantly lower blood pressure. “Our research points to the conclusion that embracing the spirit of generosity may not only be heartwarming, it may also be good for the heart,” wrote study co-authors Ashley Whillans and Elizabeth Dunn in a New York Times op-ed.

Despite all those benefits, many people donate less to charity than they intend, and others choose not to give at all.

And though charitable giving has jumped in recent years, according to the Giving Institute, people often give less when their wallets are thinner or when they feel less optimistic about the economy.

Here are three other reasons people choose not to give:

1. We’re irrational about how we spend our money.
Choosing not to give isn’t always logical. Some people shy away from giving money to a charity because they’ve been offered a reward in exchange for a donation and accepting that thank you feels selfish.

Others prefer to give in different ways, even though monetary donations may be especially needed. For example, a May 2016 study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that people who believe in karma are more likely to donate their time rather than cash. The study  builds on previous research that people often make irrational decisions when deciding how to spend their cash.

Tip: Don’t be put off by campaigns that offer gifts in exchange for cash donations. It may feel selfish to give money to a group that’s offering something in return, but in many cases your money is needed and will be appreciated. 

2. We have less empathy for bigger numbers.
Donors also tend to reject appeals for help if a pitch seems dry or includes too many facts or figures. Rather than focus on helping a lot of people, researchers have found that donors are more likely to give money when an appeal focuses on a smaller number of people with compelling and relatable stories.

A 2007 study found that people are much more likely to open their wallets if a fundraising appeal tugs at their heartstrings — even if the most compelling donation choice benefits fewer people.

“When donating to charitable causes, people do not value lives consistently,” wrote study authors Debra A. Small, George Lowenstein and Paul Slovic in the report. “Money is often concentrated on a single victim, even though more people would be helped if resources were dispersed or spent protecting future victims.”

People are also more likely to give if they empathize with potential recipients, researchers have found, or if potential recipients are close to home rather than in a different country or halfway around the world. 

Tip: Rather than defaulting to a cause or charity that feels good, spend some time researching different ways to give. You may find that your dollar stretches further when you donate it to a charity that benefits a larger group or benefits people, the environment or animals in a faraway locale.

3. We forget to follow through on our intentions.
People fail to give when they put off making a donation.

According to a 2015 study in the Journal of Public Economics, people often procrastinate when it comes to making charitable donations.

“People may be more likely to ‘find’ the time to take an action that increases their own consumption, but less likely to ‘find’ the time to take an action that benefits others,” wrote study authors Stephen Knowles and Maros Servatka in the report.

Tip: To avoid procrastination, consider setting up automatic donations. Or, if you can afford it, make a habit of saying yes each time you’re out of the house and are asked to donate a small amount. Saying yes immediately rather than putting off charitable donations not only makes donating more likely, it also gives you more opportunities to enjoy the act of giving.

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