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Wealthy donors likely to give more when made to feel powerful

Wealthy donors give more when approached with messaging that makes them feel important

Wealthy donors give 82 per cent more when approached with fundraising material that makes them feel powerful, a Harvard University study has found.

Researchers at Harvard Business School surveyed high-income earners to determine which messaging encouraged greater donations, with results demonstrating “agentic” messages were more likely to encourage giving over “communal” messaging.

“It is critical to understand how to encourage donations among those with the greatest capacity,” the study said. “Rather than simply encouraging everyone to work together, our data suggests it helps to highlight the unique role that each individual can play.”

The study looked at 12,316 recent graduates whose starting salary was an average of US$100,000 a year and found those who viewed messages that appealed to personal goals or indicated their importance were more likely to give than communal messages that suggested that donors work together towards a common social issue.

Of the almost 500 people who donated, those who viewed the agentic messages gave an average of $US431.70 – 60 per cent more than communal messages. Those who had already donated more than $US6,600 were also more likely to give.

“Wealthier individuals report higher perceptions of control over daily events and show a greater desire to make decisions for themselves,” the study said.

It added: “Wealthier individuals should respond more positively to charitable appeals that emphasise agency (the pursuit of common goals) as compared to charitable appeals that emphasise communion (the pursuit of shared goals).”

Research in social psychology and behavioural economics suggested that messages are more impactful when they fit people’s underlying motivations, however charities often frame messaging as a communal activity and potentially lose out on donations.

“In essence, money enables people to achieve their goals without help from others, and thus, wealthier individuals typically adopt agentic self-concepts, striving to stand out and master their environments on their own,” the study said.

Agentic messaging may also be more effective in increasing generosity in contexts where the overall messaging of the organisation focuses on agency, such as a charity that funds entrepreneurs, as compared to contexts where the overall mission of the organisation focuses on communal goals, like a charity that helps children.

“Eliminating the motivational conflict between wealth and generosity should not only promote higher levels of prosocial behaviour, but may also increase the satisfaction that individuals gain from helping other people,” the study said.

“Depending on how these initial acts of generosity are framed, these initial prosocial acts may be more self-reinforcing and therefore produce more sustainable increases.”

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