Bath Business and Society

Research, analysis and comment on the role of business in society from Bath's School of Management

Tagged: fundraising

Need versus beauty - how the "beauty premium" affects charitable giving

  , , ,

📥  Charity, Giving, Philanthropy, Research


Even though people believe that donations should be allocated based on the neediness of charity recipients, the recently published paper by Cynthia Cryder (University of Washington, St Louis), Simona Botti (London Business School) and Yvetta Simonyan (University of Bath) documents a “charity beauty premium” - the tendency of donors to favour more beautiful, but less needy, beneficiaries. In this piece, Yvetta Simonyan considers the implications for charitable giving. 


A few years ago, an article in the New Yorker drew readers’ attention to the fact that animals in need of conservation receive unequal attention and support. Pandas, for example, are sometimes viewed as “charismatic megafauna,” attracting disproportionally more money and attention than other endangered animals. The British naturalist Christopher Packham even offered to “eat the last panda” if it would improve the chances of less attractive species receiving more support.

Donors’ tendency to help more attractive causes extends beyond the domain of animal conservation: only 4% of $350 billion donated in the United States in 2014, went directly supporting the most pressing human needs in the developing world. By comparison, universities attracted almost twice as much.

Yet, when we asked people what is the single most important factor that affects their charitable giving, 46% indicated neediness of donation recipients (the second most popular answer was the impact, which was mentioned by 8% of the respondents). In another study, when we asked participants to evaluate photos from a fundraising website on the dimensions of attractiveness and neediness, they rated more attractive people as less needy. Combined, these two findings suggest that people should give less to beautiful recipients. But while some prior research investigations support that proposition, others, including the aforementioned examples from industry, suggest that attractive people are more likely to receive help than unattractive ones.


Want versus should

We propose that this incongruence exists because donors simultaneously hold two distinct preferences: a want preference for beautiful recipients and a should preference for the needy. Previous research showed that people hold want preferences that are based on affect and, sometimes, linked with desire. On the other hand, should preferences that are reason-based, logical, and more easily justified. For example, when choosing movies, consumers may hold a want preference to watch a comedy and a should preference to watch a documentary. In our research context, beautiful recipients offer intuitive appeal and immediate satisfaction, whereas needy recipients fit with a reasoned priority to help the most desperate individuals.


Deliberative or intuitive giving

We propose that donors’ want preferences for beautiful recipients are most likely to emerge when they choose intuitively, whereas donors’ should preferences for needy recipients are most likely to develop when they choose deliberatively. Research in psychology recognises distinctions in cognitive functioning between two types of processing. “System 1” processing, or quick intuitive processing depends on effortless automatic associations and tends to favour affect-rich options. By contrast, “System 2” processing, or deliberative processing operates slowly and depends on logical reasoning. So, when donors decide intuitively, they are more likely to select beautiful recipients in line with their want preferences; when donors decide deliberatively, they are more likely to select needy recipients in line with their should preferences.

We conducted several studies to test our propositions and to find the conditions under which the charity beauty premium effect is attenuated. In line with our predictions, when we asked people if they would like to donate to one (or more) of eight animals kept at a British conservation centre, the four animals that were rated (in a separate study) as more attractive were given almost twice as much money as the other four species that were rated as less attractive. Similarly, when we asked the potential donors to support charities working in developing countries, people demonstrated a preference to sponsor more attractive children over needier ones. So, given these instinctive preferences, how can we increase the chances of needier beneficiaries receiving help?

Our findings showed that people donate more to needier donation recipients when they are asked to make a deliberative rather than an intuitive decision. We also found that decision-makers tend to make deliberative decisions when they choose on behalf of someone else or when they are asked to evaluate the neediness of beneficiaries before deciding whom to help. Finally, the charity beauty premium effect disappears when the donors have above-average levels of empathy towards the recipients.


Implications for fundraisers

We do not know whether the individuals involved in decision-making on charitable giving felt any dissonance when making their choices, but we asked the study participants about their perceptions on how they want versus how they should donate. The responses indicate that, even though donors think they should give to needier beneficiaries, they want to give to more attractive recipients.

Interestingly, when the respondents make decisions deliberatively (that is, when charity beauty premium effect is diminished), they are less willing to donate in the future, suggesting that deliberation may act as a double-edged sword – improving the chances of needier recipient in the short term, but reducing the likelihood of future donations. Such evidence suggests that encouraging deliberative giving may benefit less beautiful, but needier recipients, who are competing with more attractive beneficiaries. However, for recurring calls for charitable donations, using more beautiful images instead of encouraging the donors to choose deliberatively may be more beneficial.


Image by Thomas Lasserre



How can NGOs become more credible watchdogs?

  , , , ,

📥  Charity, Giving, Policy


Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) are indispensable watchdogs against corrupt practices and global challenges found in complex, modern societies. Yet sometimes, NGOs themselves can struggle to live up to the ambitious standards they demand of others, such as responsible advocacy, ethical fundraising, and meaningful participation of stakeholders. In this piece, Prize Fellow Stefan Hielscher and his co-authors Jan Winkin and Ingo Pies discuss their recently published research, which suggests that strengthening the rules of “fair competition” among NGOs is a promising avenue to increase their credibility.


Stereotyping by NGOs

With so many causes competing for attention from the public, it’s perhaps inevitable that NGOs may opt for shock tactics. Some controversial tactics can be very effective in raising public attention, gaining member support and securing funding, “Poverty pornography” provides a telling example. Critical observers invoke the term to describe the use of shocking but misleading imagery in NGOs’ fundraising campaigns, such as the notorious “potbellied child.” Critics claim such campaigns conceal the root causes of poverty, misdirect well-intentioned help, and violate the dignity of those in need. The website Rusty Radiator collects a variety of impressively frustrating examples, awarding the “fundraising video with the worst use of stereotypes” on an annual basis.

Granted, poverty porn is an extreme example. But it is the case that NGOs are sometimes tempted to simplify messages, thereby misrepresenting complex issues, and this may result in the root causes of the problem being misunderstood. For example, recent research reveals serious inconsistencies in advocacy positions related to the global food crisis in 2008. Before the food crisis, NGOs claimed that low food prices would promote poverty and hunger in rural areas in developing countries. After the food crisis, however, the very same NGOs claimed that high food prices cause hunger and poverty in urban areas in developing countries.


NGOs and responsible advocacy

To address challenges to their accountability and strengthen their credibility, in 2008 the international NGO elite founded “Accountable Now” (AN). Responsible advocacy is one of 12 agreed-upon accountability standards, and includes fact checks and clear procedures for advocacy positions. A complaints handling mechanism was designed to give stakeholders a voice to critique misrepresented interests or other questionable advocacy practices. A 2016 survey by AN of members and non-members however, revealed sobering results. NGOs seem to fare quite poorly in “stakeholder responsiveness” and “responsible advocacy.” Only about 10% of NGOs responded to complaints raised by AN’s evaluation team in a blind test, and many NGOs lacked robust fact checks and clear procedures to adopt or exit advocacy positions.


How competition affects NGO behaviour

Why is it that even member NGOs struggle to comply with AN’s standards? Our research suggests that NGOs operate in a highly competitive environment, all seeking funding, members and media attention. All these are necessary, but scare resources, and the competition for these can impede responsible advocacy.

NGOs are facing a “social dilemma” here. They can either choose the easy option and seek out attention without worrying too much about potential negative side-effects, or present a measured view which incorporates the best available knowledge on a controversial issue. The danger is that by taking the easy option, other NGOs will follow suit to secure their piece of the pie. As a result, the whole third sector’s reputation and credibility as a promotor of social change is put at risk.


Creating an enabling environment for responsible advocacy

Can we expect NGOs to refrain from this kind of race-to-the-bottom competition, and to engage in responsible advocacy on a voluntary basis? While some international “giant” NGOs may have the resources to take the moral high ground, some smaller NGOs are facing much stronger threats to their survival. For some of them, every successful fundraising campaign counts. Some NGOs will be able do the right thing only if the organisational benefits outweigh the associated costs. They will need to be sure that their competitors for public attention will follow suit in responsible advocacy.

This is why Accountable Now is such an important initiative. NGOs need to establish their own regulatory framework to raise standards for the whole sector. Within the AN’s NGO community, some voices are demanding stronger leadership to make this happen. Others are looking more towards external monitoring.

Our research has found that to be effective, both strategies need be designed so as to create a more enabling environment for NGOs and therefore to improve the cost-benefit balance. Effective monitoring of stereotyping campaigns requires graduated “reputational sanctions,” for example by raising public awareness of bad examples. Conversely, AN could reward best practice with public attention, by, for example, awarding prizes for responsible advocacy to leading NGOs.

There are no ready made solutions for these issues. It is important for NGOs, though, to acknowledge that they are not spared from the adverse impact of competition just because they are siding with the weak, the marginalized, the neglected and the poor. The insight of economics also applies here: good intentions need be supported by appropriate incentives, to do the right thing and to do things right.


Image by Howard Lake