Charitable Giving

Charitable giving is an increasingly important component of our national economy comprising over 2% of GDP in 2008. However, relatively little is known about what drives people to give to charities. This line of research includes large scale field experiments to investigate charitable giving.

Image © Simon Cory

A Glimpse into the World of High Capacity Givers: Experimental Evidence from a University Capital Campaign

Levin, Tova, Steven D. Levitt and John A, List

NBER Working Paper 22099 (2016)


The wealthiest 10% of donors now give 90% of charitable dollars in the U.S., but little is known about what motivates them. Using a natural field experiment on over 5,000 high capacity donors, we find persistence in giving patterns, that signals of program quality influence giving, and that the price of giving is not unduly important. Unlike typical small donors, our givers respond only on the intensive margin, and often with a longer time lag. Our study highlights the value to practitioners of partnering with academics, as our intervention has generated $30 million in incremental donations to the University.

Toward an Understanding of why Suggestions Work in Charitable Fundraising: Theory and Evidence from a Natural Field Experiment

Edwards, James T. and John A. List

Journal of Public Economics, (2014), Volume: 114, pp. 1-13.


People respond to those who ask. Within the charitable fundraising community, the power of the ask represents the backbone of most fundraising strategies. Despite this, the optimal design of communication strategies has received less formal attention. For their part, economists have recently explored how communication affects empathy, altruism, and giving rates to charities. Our study takes a step back from this literature to examine how suggestions-a direct ask for a certain amount of money-affect giving rates. We find that our suggestion amounts affect both the intensive and extensive margins: more people give and they tend to give the suggested amount. Resulting insights help us understand why people give, why messages work, and deepen practitioners’ understanding of how to use messages to leverage more giving.

Exploring the origins of charitable acts: Evidence from an artefactual field experiment with young children

List, John A and Anya Samek

Economics Letters, (2013), 118(3), pp.431-434.


An active area of research within economics concerns the underpinnings of why people give to charitable causes. This study takes a new approach to this question by exploring motivations for giving among children aged 3–5. Using data gathered from 122 children, our artefactual field experiment naturally permits us to disentangle pure altruism and warm glow motivators for giving. We find evidence for the existence of pure altruism but not warm glow. Our results suggest pure altruism is a fundamental component of our preferences, and highlight that warm glow preferences found amongst adults likely develop over time. One speculative hypothesis is that warm glow preferences are learned through socialization.

The Importance of Being Marginal: Gender Differences in Generosity

DellaVigna, Stefano, John A List, Ulrike Malmendier, Gautom Rao

American Economic Review, (2013,P&P), 103(3): pp. 586-90.


Do men and women have different social preferences? Previous findings are contradictory. We provide a potential explanation using evidence from a field experiment. In a door-to-door solicitation, men and women are equally generous, but women become less generous when it becomes easy to avoid the solicitor. Our structural estimates of the social preference parameters suggest an explanation: women are more likely to be on the margin of giving, partly because of a less dispersed distribution of altruism. We find similar results for the willingness to complete an unpaid survey: women are more likely to be on the margin of participation.

How Can Bill and Melinda Gates Increase Other People’s Donations to Fund Public Goods?

Karlan, Dean and John A. List

NBER Working Paper 17954


We develop a simple theory which formally describes how charities can resolve the information asymmetry problems faced by small donors by working with large donors to generate quality signals. To test the model, we conducted two large-scale natural field experiments. In the first experiment, a charity focusing on poverty reduction solicited donations from prior donors and either announced a matching grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, or made no mention of a match. In the second field experiment, the same charity sent direct mail solicitations to individuals who had not previously donated to the charity, and tested whether naming the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as the matching donor was more effective than not identifying the name of the matching donor. The first experiment demonstrates that the matching grant condition generates more and larger donations relative to no match. The second experiment shows that providing a credible quality signal by identifying the matching donor generates even more and larger donations than not naming the matching donor. Importantly, the treatment effects persist long after the matching period, and the quality signal is quite heterogeneous–the Gates’ effect is much larger for prospective donors who had a record of giving to “poverty-oriented” charities. These two pieces of evidence support our model of quality signals as a key mechanism through which matching gifts inspire donors to give.

Testing for Altruism and Social Pressure in Charitable Giving

DellaVigna, Stefano, John A List and Ulrike Malmendier

Quarterly Journal of Economics, (2012), 127(1), pp. 1-56.


Every year, 90 percent of Americans give money to charities. Is such generosity necessarily welfare enhancing for the giver? We present a theoretical framework that distinguishes two types of motivation: individuals like to give, e.g., due to altruism or warm glow, and individuals would rather not give but dislike saying no, e.g., due to social pressure. We design a door-to-door fund-raising drive in which some households are informed about the exact time of solicitation with a flyer on their door-knobs; thus, they can seek or avoid the fund-raiser. We find that the flyer reduces the share of households opening the door by 10 to 25 percent and, if the flyer allows checking a `Do Not Disturb’ box, reduces giving by 30 percent. The latter decrease is concentrated among donations smaller than $10. These findings suggest that social pressure is an important determinant of door-to-door giving. Combining data from this and a complementary field experiment, we structurally estimate the model. The estimated social pressure cost of saying no to a solicitor is $3.5 for an in-state charity and $1.4 for an out-of-state charity. Our welfare calculations suggest that our door-to-door fund-raising campaigns on average lower utility of the potential donors.

Charitable Giving Around the World: Thoughts on How to Expand the Pie

List, John A and Michael Price

CESIfo Economic Studies, (2012), 58(1), pp. 1-30.


One fact that has emerged in modern societies is that people help others. Whether it is donating a few dollars to help feed the poor or volunteering time to help rebuild someone’s life after a natural disaster, people around the globe commonly lend a hand. This study provides an overview of that support, summarizing gifts of both time and money around the globe. We also highlight research that indicates useful ways in which we can enhance the charitable pie. Our discussion revolves around both individual giving and corporate philanthropy, but we focus on empirical insights from recent charitable fundraising field experiments in the Western World. We present information that is useful for policymakers, fundraising practitioners, and academicians.

Charitable donations are more responsive to stock market booms than busts

John A. List, Yana Peysakhovich

Economics Letters 110 (2011) 166–169


This paper examines aggregate time series data on individual charitable donations from 1968 to 2007. We find that changes in individual giving show an asymmetric response to changes in the S&P 500: individuals are more responsive to stock market upturns than downturns.

The Market for Charitable Giving

John A. List

Journal of Economic Perspectives, 25(2) (2011), pp. 157–180


Through good and bad economic times, charitable gifts have continued to roll in largely unabated over the past half century. In a typical year, total charitable gifts of money now exceed 2 percent of gross domestic product. Moreover, charitable giving has nearly doubled in real terms since 1990, and the number of nonprofit organizations registered with the IRS grew by nearly 60 percent from 1995 to 2005. This study provides a perspective on the economic interplay of three types of actors: donors, charitable organizations, and government. How much is given annually? Who gives? Who are the recipients of these gifts? Would changes in the tax treatment of charitable contributions lead to more or less giving? How can charitable institutions design mechanisms to generate the greatest level of gifts? What about the effectiveness of seed money and matching grants?

Small matches and charitable giving: Evidence from a natural field experiment

Dean Karlan, John A. List, Eldar Shafir

Journal of Public Economics 95 (2011) 344–350


To further our understanding of the economics of charity, we conducted a natural field experiment. Making use of two direct mail solicitations sent to nearly 20,000 prior donors to a charity, we tested the effectiveness of $1:$1 and $1:$3 matching grants on charitable giving. We find only weak evidence that either of the matches work; in fact, for the full sample, the match only increased giving after the match deadline expired. Yet, the aggregation masks important heterogeneities: those donors who are actively supporting the organization tend to be positively influenced whereas lapsed givers are either not affected or adversely affected. Furthermore, some presentations of the match can do harm, e.g., when an example amount given is high ($75) and the match ratio is below $1:$1. Overall, the results help clarify what might cause people to give and provide further evidence that larger match ratios are not necessarily superior to smaller match ratios.

The Role of Social Connections in Charitable Fundraising: Evidence from a Natural Field Experiment

List, John A. and Michael K. Price

Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, (2010), forthcoming.


The economics literature suggests that enhanced social connection can increase trust amongst agents, which can ultimately lead to more efficient economic outcomes, including increased provision of public goods. This study provides a test of whether social connectedness (proxied via agent similarities in race and gender) influences giving to a charitable fundraiser. Using data gathered from more than 2000 households approached in an actual door-to-door fundraising drive, we find limited evidence of the importance of such social connections. A robust result in the data, however, is that our minority solicitors, whether approaching a majority or minority household, are considerably less likely to obtain a contribution, and conditional on securing a contribution, gift size is lower than their majority counterparts receive.

Is a Donor in Hand Better than Two in the Bush? Evidence from a Natural Field Experiment

Landry, Craig, Andreas Lange, John A. List, Michael K. Price, and Nicholas G. Rupp

American Economic Review, (2010), forthcoming


This study develops theory and conducts an experiment to provide an understanding of why people initially give to charities, why they remain committed to the cause, and what factors attenuate these influences. Using an experimental design that links donations across distinct treatments separated in time, we present several insights. For example, we find that previous donors are more likely to give, and contribute more, than donors asked to contribute for the first time. Yet, how these previous donors were acquired is critical: agents who are initially attracted by signals of charitable quality transmitted via an economic mechanism are much more likely to continue giving than agents who were initially attracted by non-mechanism factors.

Rebate Rules in Threshold Public Good Provision

Spencer, Michael A., Stephen K. Swallow, Jason F. Shogren, and John A. List

Journal of Public Economics, (2009), 93(5-6), pp. 798-806.


This paper considers how six alternative rebate rules affect voluntary contributions in a threshold public-good experiment. The rules differ by (1) whether an individual can receive a proportional rebate of excess contributions, a winner-takes-all of any excess contributions, or a full rebate of one’s contribution in the event the public good is provided and excess contributions exist, and (2) whether the probability of receiving a rebate is proportional to an individual’s contribution relative to total contributions or is a simple uniform probability distribution set by the number of contributors. The paper adds to the existing experimental economics literature on threshold public goods by investigating both aggregate and individual demand revelation under the winner-take-all and random full-rebate rules. Half of the rules (proportional rebate, winner-take-all with uniform probability among all group members, and random full-rebate with uniform probability) provide total contributions that nearly equal total benefits, while the rest (winner-take-all with proportional probability, winner-take-all with uniform probability among contributors only, and random full- rebate with proportional probability) exceed benefits by over 30%. Only the proportional rebate rule is found to achieve both aggregate and individual demand revelation. Our experimental results have implications for both fundraisers and valuation practitioners.

Matching and challenge gifts to charity: evidence from laboratory and natural field experiments

Rondeau, Daniel and John A . List

Experimental Economics, (2008), 11(3), pp. 253-267.


This study designs a natural field experiment linked to a controlled laboratory experiment to examine the effectiveness of matching gifts and challenge gifts, two popular strategies used to secure a portion of the $200 billion annually given to charities. We find evidence that challenge gifts positively influence contributions in the field, but matching gifts do not. Methodologically, we find important similarities and dissimilarities between behavior in the lab and the field. Overall, our results have clear implications for fundraisers and provide avenues for future empirical and theoretical work on charitable giving.

A fundraising mechanism inspired by historical tontines: Theory and experimental evidence

Lange, Andreas, John A. List, and Michael K. Price

Journal of Public Economics, (2007), 91(9), pp. 1750-1782.


The tontine, which is an interesting mixture of group annuity, group life insurance, and lottery, has a peculiar place in economic history. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it played a major role in raising funds to finance public goods in Europe, but today it is rarely encountered outside of a dusty footnote in actuarial course notes or as a means to thicken the plot of a murder mystery. This study provides a formal model of individual contribution decisions under a modern variant of the historical tontine mechanism that is easily implemented by private charities. Our model incorporates desirable properties of the historical tontine to develop a mechanism to fund the private provision of a public good. The tontine-like mechanism we derive is predicted to outperform not only the voluntary contribution mechanism but also another widely used mechanism: charitable lotteries. Our experimental test of the instrument provides some evidence of the beneficial effects associated with implementing tontine-like schemes. We find that the mechanism has particular power in cases where agents are risk averse or in situations where substantial asymmetries characterize individual preferences for the public good.

Does Price Matter in Charitable Giving? Evidence from a Large-Scale Natural Field Experiment

Karlan, Dean and John A. List

American Economic Review, (2007), 97(5), pp. 1774- 1793.


We conducted a natural field experiment to further our understanding of the economics of charity. Using direct mail solicitations to over 50,000 prior donors of a nonprofit organization, we tested the effectiveness of a matching grant on charitable giving. We find that the match offer increases both the revenue per solicitation and the response rate. Larger match ratios (i.e., $3:$1 and $2:$1) relative to a smaller match ratio ($1:$1) had no additional impact, however. The results provide avenues for future empirical and theoretical work on charitable giving, cost-benefit analysis, and the private provision of public goods.

Using Lotteries to Finance Public Goods: Theory and Experimental Evidence

Lange, Andreas, John A. List, and Michael K. Price

International Economic Review, (2007), 48(3), pp. 901-927.


This study explores the economics of charitable fund-raising. We begin by developing theory that examines the optimal lottery design while explicitly relaxing both risk-neutrality and preference homogeneity assumptions. We test our theory using a battery of experimental treatments and find that our theoretical predictions are largely confirmed. Specifically, we find that single- and multiple-prize lotteries dominate the voluntary contribution mechanism both in total dollars raised and the number of contributors attracted. Moreover, we find that the optimal fundraising mechanism depends critically on the risk postures of potential contributors and preference heterogeneity.

Toward an Understanding of the Economics of Charity: Evidence from a Field Experiment

Landry, Craig, Andreas Lange, John A. List, Michael K. Price, and Nicholas G. Rupp.

Quarterly Journal of Economics, (2006), 121(2), pp. 747-782.


This study develops theory and uses a door-to-door fund-raising field experiment to explore the economics of charity. We approached nearly 5000 households, randomly divided into four experimental treatments, to shed light on key issues on the demand side of charitable fund-raising. Empirical results are in line with our theory: in gross terms, the lotteries raised more money than the voluntary contributions treatments. Interestingly, in terms of both maximizing current contributions and inducing participation, we find that a one-standard deviation increase in female solicitor physical attractiveness is similar to that of the lottery incentive.

The impact of challenge gifts on charitable giving: an experimental investigation

List, John A. and Daniel Rondeau

Economics Letters, (2003), 79(2), pp. 153-159.


Evidence suggests that contributions to capital campaigns increase with the value of leadership gifts. We examine the response of subjects to the announcement of leadership gifts and its implied change in the campaign’s target. The two effects are partitioned.

The Effects of Seed Money and Refunds on Charitable Giving: Experimental Evidence from a University Capital Campaign

List, John A. and David Lucking-Reiley

Journal of Political Economy, (2002), 110(1), pp. 215-233.


We design a field experiment to test two theories of fund-raising for threshold public goods: Andreoni predicts that publicly announced ‘seed money’ will increase charitable donations, whereas Bagnoli and Lipman predict a similar increase for a refund policy. Experimentally manipulating a solicitation of 3,000 households for a university capital campaign produced data confirming both predictions. Increasing seed money from 10 percent to 67 percent of the campaign goal produced a nearly sixfold increase in contributions, with significant effects on both participation rates and average gift size. Imposing a refund in- creased contributions by a more modest 20 percent, with significant effects on average gift size.