The field of giving and philanthropy has undergone substantial shifts since this literature review was last updated in 2019. As COVID-19 emerged as a global challenge, charitable giving in the United States climbed from $449.64 billion in 2019 (Giving USA 2020) to $471.44 billion in 2020 (Giving USA 2021) and to $484.85 billion in 2021 (Giving USA,2022). Giving by individuals continues to grow, although it now represents a smaller share of total giving than it did four years ago, sitting at roughly two-thirds of total giving (Giving USA 2022) compared to nearly 70% in 2019 (Giving USA 2020). In light of these changes, current research into how people give today is invaluable for connecting philanthropic resources to the organizations pursuing social change.

As the philanthropic landscape in the U.S. has shifted, donors are paying increasing attention to questions of equity and social justice when thinking about causes of interest (Giving USA 2022). Yet even as people may change their intentions, focusing on new causes and issues does not necessarily translate to giving to advance those causes. Past research on giving behavior points to many potential barriers that people may face when trying to give intentionally, rather than reactively. For instance, people may not feel as much emotional satisfaction when giving to a big-picture, abstract cause than when giving to an individual or to a cause that can demonstrate a more immediate and concrete impact. As new research emerges on the factors that can affect how and why people give, these fresh insights can inform interventions that enable donors to give more proactively, strategically, and impactfully.

With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ideas42 has continued to explore and test new approaches to integrating findings from behavioral science into the world of charitable giving. As our work has progressed, we have also adapted our project goals, placing an increasing focus not only on enabling people to give more strategically, but also on encouraging giving to advance racial and gender equity. This report updates our 2019 literature review with findings from both recently published research, and from work that is newly relevant to our mandate.

The first section of this review focuses on experimental studies in giving. The bulk of the new works included there are conducted as online lab studies, rather than field studies. Most experimental designs in this section involve asking the participant to make a binary yes/no donation decision to a single solicitation, rather than a decision between multiple causes. This context mirrors real-world scenarios in which solicitations to donate are likely to come from a single non-profit or cause.

The second section catalogs nonexperimental studies, including theoretical frameworks and other literature reviews. The third and final section lists major surveys, reports, and longitudinal studies. These works provide an excellent reference point for exploring national trends in giving, as well as giving patterns by demographic and giving channel (giving directly to a non-profit vs. through a giving platform vs. through a pooled fund, etc.).

Read the full article about donor behavior by Nick O'Donnell and Bradley Noble at ideas42.