Charitable Giving Hinges on Perception of ‘Worthiness’

Signing a check

Charities assisting people perceived as responsible for their plight may have a difficult time attracting donations, says a new study co-authored by a UConn researcher.

With more than $200 billion donated to causes each year in the United States alone, consumers are inundated with donation requests from charities supporting an array of recipients. Contrary to the idea that people who fit the profile of “givers” are uniformly charitable, their donations may be based on information or preconceived notions about the potential beneficiaries.

“As consumers have limited financial resources to allocate to charitable giving, they may evaluate how ‘deserving’ the recipients are before making donations,” according to William T. Ross Jr., ING Global chair and professor of marketing at UConn and a co-author of the paper. “It’s not only the characteristics of the giver that determine their likelihood of donating, but characteristics they perceive in the recipient.”

The finding contradicts previous studies that have focused on characteristics of people with the option to give, suggesting an important boundary particularly among the most charitable – those defined as having a strong moral identity.

Ross was part of a team of researchers led by Saerom Lee, a doctoral student, and Karen Page Winterich, assistant professor of marketing, both at the Pennsylvania State University. Their findings are published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

The team looked at the responses of 600 participants studied in four scenarios.

In one, researchers examined the response of participants who were given an amount of cash to donate to a real nonprofit organization, the Pennsylvania Association of Community Health Centers.

Participants were asked to choose between donating to medical patients described alternately as having a low level of responsibility for their situations and those having a high level of responsibility. The recipients were described either as unable to pay for medical treatment because of “low-wage jobs with poor benefits due to economic conditions” or unable to pay for treatment because of inability “to hold a steady job due to their drug and alcohol abuse or gambling addiction.”

The findings indicate that charitable organizations marketing their causes need to be cautious when describing the beneficiaries that they support, particularly if the recipient could be perceived as responsible for their plight and, by extension, undeserving.

According to the researchers, even when charities do not specifically highlight the responsibility of their recipients, consumers tend to assign their own preconceived notions about beneficiaries in stigmatized groups. For example, the plight of the homeless or of drug addicts is often attributed to their own behaviors.

The study was funded by a Smeal Small Research Grant from the Smeal College of Business at Pennsylvania State University, and is based on a dissertation by author Saerom Lee, which was the winner of the 2013 Society for Consumer Psychology Dissertation Proposal Competition.