Time Is Precious — Here’s How to Convince People to Donate It

Most charitable organizations survive through the help of donations. But what motivates a person to write a check versus signing up for some volunteer hours? And how can an organization convince donors to give time instead of money?

In a new paper, I Don’t Want the Money, I Just Want Your Time: How Moral Identity Overcomes the Aversion to Giving Time to Pro-social Causes, Wharton marketing professor Americus Reed and his co-authors find that one way to do this is through cues that speak to a persons moral identity or the degree to which concerns like kindness or generosity are central to your sense of who you are.

The papers co-authors are Adam Kay, a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia, Stephanie Finnel, a marketing support services specialist at BAYADA Home Health Care, Karl Aquino, a professor at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, and Eric Levy, a professor at Cambridge Universitys Judge Business School. The paper is forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Reed recently discussed the findings with Knowledge@Wharton. An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

Motivations to Give:

This research has to do with thinking about how to enhance charitable giving by motivating consumers to give — that’s sort of the first question. And within that question, the second question we’re looking at is how to make them give time instead of money. We’re interested in factors that increase the likelihood that consumers will … give time when they’re asked to donate, as opposed to money.

What we find is that when you’re attempting to get consumers to give time, a very effective strategy is to make them think about themselves as moral individuals. There are two ways to do this — one way is to trigger something internal to them so that they see themselves as moral people. The other way is to provide them with external cues that make them think about their morality. And so, the combination of these two things can increase the likelihood that … they will want to give time instead of money.

The Power of Moral Cues:

We were surprised to find that you have to be careful when you are trying to put moral cues in front of people because they can be very powerful. For example, if you get people to start thinking about moral individuals like Mother Theresa, sometimes what can happen is they feel like they can’t reach that moral ideal, so they end up not doing anything from a moral perspective because it’s too far afield of how they would want to see themselves or how they believe they could see themselves.

The other thing is that we have to be careful of is sometimes if you get people to think about their moral identity, they’ll think about moral things they’ve done in the past. And on that particular instance that you ask them to do something, they’ll choose not to do it because they have kind of built up this surplus in the moral bank account, so to speak.

The way you have to trigger moral thoughts is in a very subtle way — to not be too powerful to drive these two types of effects that I just mentioned.

“You have to be careful when you are trying to put moral cues in front of people because they can be very powerful.”

Persuasive Communication:

The research that we’re doing suggests that if you are designing a persuasive communication — let’s say you are putting out a brochure that’s part of a mass mailing — then you are going to want to include in that brochure symbols and cues in the writing and the request for help that will trigger this notion of morality. This could be words that might be related to morality, like “compassion and caring” and these kinds of things. These are words that when people read them, they think about how these words relate to who they are. In some instances that we find in the research … the presence of these words and the persuasive communication will trigger in people’s minds a sense of morality that they should do something, and in turn, will increase the likelihood that they give time.

Money vs. Time:

There’s a misperception that it’s too difficult to make people give time. Here’s why: Time is a very special resource compared to money. People don’t want to give time to just anybody.  Twitter What we find in the research is that all things equal, people want to give money because giving time has certain distinct psychological costs to it. For example, time is very finite. Money is fungible. But you only have 24 hours in the day. So you’re going to choose to give that time to particular close others. When you’re thinking about trying to get people to do something, to give time to a pro-social cause where those benefactors are strangers, then it’s hard to do. People think it’s almost impossible because of the fact that [when it comes to] giving time, people have this aversion to do it.

You can overcome this aversion by playing into a person’s moral self, or presenting them with cues that get them to think about themselves as moral individuals, and then that overcomes this aversion to giving time.…

The Outliers:

There’s the discussion about how to get people to give time, and it turns out that folks who are part of the millennial generation tend to want to give time a bit more than other groups. But our research says that even though millennials may want to give time, there is a huge group of other folks who aren’t millennials who we need to focus on as well, who may not have this internal predisposition to want to give time. Our research really focuses on how to bring those other groups into the fray by motivating them to give time through what we show in our paper.

Psychological Benefits of Time:

What we find in the research is that the act of giving time has these psychological benefits that money doesn’t have. It’s a more meaningful act; it’s more self-expressive for people who are thinking about themselves as moral individuals. It is also much more meaningful and it creates happiness for people and a sense of connectedness for those who are receiving the time that money just can’t.

“Time is a very special resource compared to money. People don’t want to give time to just anybody.”

What Sets the Research Apart:

This research is special in the sense that most of the studies that are done on giving have to do with measuring people and measuring their behavior over time, and those studies are correlational. What sets our study apart is the fact that we use causal experiments and we bring people into the lab where we can clearly manipulate things to see what’s changing their behavior. And at the end of that, we can conclude whether it’s exactly what we were imposing on them in terms of their thought processes that actually drove what they did. And you can’t conclude that in a correlational study.

Whats Next:

I’m super interested in the role that moral identity plays in terms of how it relates to emotions like empathy, awe and these kinds of moral elevation experiences. And so, what I’m also particularly interested in is the idea of how does the act of giving subsequently reinforce a person’s moral identity? In our paper, we’re looking at the role that moral identity plays in giving, but I’d like to actually reverse that relationship and see to what extent are certain types of giving related to strengthening how a person sees themselves as a moral individual.

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