Ohio State University: The one word charities use that turns off donors

People would rather spend their money on a charitable cause than simply give to it, a new study suggests.

You may wonder: What’s the difference? The answer is control.

Researchers found that donors feel like they have more control over their donation when they are told they’re actively spending their money on an important cause, as compared to giving their money.

“The word ‘give’ can have a more negative connotation than ‘spend’ to donors. ‘Give’ highlights how you’re being separated from your money, which is not appealing,” said Selin Malkoc, co-author of the study and associate professor of marketing at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.

“But ‘spending your money’ has a different connotation – it implies that you’re still a part of the cash you’re providing to the charity.”

Selin Malkoc
Selin Malkoc
The findings were part of larger study that examined how donors felt about giving their time versus their money to nonprofits. More than 2,700 people participated in seven related studies. The research was co-authored by John Costello of the University of Notre Dame and published online recently in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Overall, the study found that people prefer giving their time to nonprofit organizations rather than their money, because they feel more personal control over how their time is used, according to Malkoc.

“It is not possible to separate ourselves from our time, the way that we can from our money,” she said. “When you give your time, it is still a part of you. You are still living through it.”

The problem is that nonprofits usually prefer financial donations over donations of time, she said. This new research suggests a way that charities can make giving money more appealing, by offering donors a feeling of having more power over how their financial gifts are used.

One way is through the language charities use in donation appeals.

In one study, online participants read about a COVID-19 fundraiser and asked to imagine giving or spending either time or money to benefit health care workers who needed personal protective equipment.

Participants were asked how much they would be willing to donate in dollars or hours to help with the fundraiser.

People approached for a financial donation offered more than twice as much when they were asked to “spend” their money ($94) than when they were asked to “give” their money ($40).

And here’s why: Participants were asked several questions that measured how much control they would feel over their donations. Results showed that people who were asked to spend their money reported feeling more control than those who were asked to give their money.

“Our results suggest charities should be asking people to spend their money on them, not give it to them,” Malkoc said.

The importance of control was shown in another study in which researchers told participants about an opportunity to donate time or money to a children’s hospital. But in this case, some participants were told they would be given control over how their volunteered time or donated money would be used.

When given control, people were nearly equally interested in giving, whether it was time or money.

“If nonprofits gave more control over how donations are spent, or made donors feel like they were spending their money rather than giving it, that may alleviate some of the disconnect people feel about financial gifts.”

The researchers took into account a variety of other factors that could have affected the results, but consistently found that people wanted to feel control over how their time or money is used, Malkoc said.

The findings about how language affects people’s willingness to help has implications beyond just donations to charities.

“Friends and family are more likely to want to help us by giving their time than their money,” Malkoc said.

“For most people, time is very valuable, in some cases more valuable than money. But when it comes to sharing the resource with others, they are more willing to give time (than money) because they feel control over how it is used.”

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