Why do people (not) give to charity?

I started my PhD to find out why people give to charity. And why they don’t.

Before starting at UQ I worked in fundraising and communications for child-focused charities at home (New Zealand) and abroad (El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Thailand).

It was an emotional job.

On the one hand, I got to see first-hand the generosity of everyday people who were playing their part in changing the world. I also met determined, passionate people struggling through adversity and creating profound transformation in their communities.

On the other hand, I saw brutal suffering up close.

My bleeding heart was tormented by a perplexity: most people didn’t give. Even among people who already supported the cause, an 8% response rate was worth celebrating.

I wanted to know what stopped the majority of people from taking an action that was insignificant to them but life-changing for children living in poverty. So I started my research…

And quickly hit a stumbling block.

You see, it turns out people do give to charity.

The World Giving Index asked people around the world if they’d donated money in the last month and most people had – from Myanmar (92%) to Guatemala (48%), Australia (72%) to Norway (60%), Kenya (45%) to USA (63%), it seems humans around the world are surprisingly generous.

So people do give. But when do they give, and who do they give to?

There are 54,345 registered charities in Australia alone. People simply cannot give to all those causes, even if they wanted to. So I started asking a new question: How do people decide which charities to give to?

This is the new topic of my PhD. Specifically, I’m interested in how qualities inherent in individual donors (think demographics, identities, and empathy) collide with contextual cues (norms, types of beneficiaries) to promote or suppress charitable action.

In my first series of studies, I found that who gives depends on who receives. The types of people (e.g., males vs females, religious vs secular) most likely to donate to animal welfare charities, for example, may be different than those giving to international or religious charities.

We may all be generous, just to different causes.

These early findings hint at a richness and complexity beneath the surface of charitable action—one that depends on an interplay between a donor, a beneficiary, and the giving context. It’s this complexity that I seek to unravel… and I’ll be keeping you posted.

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