We like to donate to charities with ‘beautiful’ causes

A much greater percentage of people chose to sponsor a giraffe or zebra (both rated as highly beautiful) rather than a penguin or orangutan (rated as less beautiful). (Credit: Getty Images)

On Giving Tuesday this week, holiday campaigns launched into high gear, with an array of organizations making appeals for charitable donations.

But how do people decide where to donate their money? A new study suggests it often comes down to something called a “charity beauty premium.”

“We observed that donors often favor beautiful, but less needy, charity recipients,” says Cynthia Cryder, associate professor of marketing at Washington University in St. Louis Olin Business School.

Researchers conducted eight different studies involving thousands of in-person and online participants who were shown multiple photos of actual charity recipients and observed how participants responded. The bottom line: Beauty prevailed when it came to making intuitive choices on where, how much, and to whom to donate.

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“There seems to be a very basic automatic preference for beauty,” Cryder says. In one study, a significantly greater percentage of participants chose to sponsor a giraffe or zebra (both rated as highly beautiful) rather than a penguin or orangutan (rated as less beautiful), despite correctly perceiving the latter two animals as more severely endangered.

“If you’re asking people to make quick decisions based on intuition, then a preference for beautiful recipients emerges.

However, visual judgments of neediness and beauty are negatively correlated, which means when donors are choosing the beautiful recipients, they are overlooking the needy ones, who are the ones they say they should give to.”

Although participants chose beautiful recipients when deciding quickly and intuitively, when they were asked to carefully consider charitable recipients, there was a shift. When encouraged to deliberate, participants opted to donate to those recipients they knew they should (the needier recipient) instead of those they wanted to give to (the more beautiful recipient).

“We found when we asked participants to make very thoughtful and well-reasoned decisions, then a preference for needier recipients emerged,” Cryder says.

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So where does this leave organizations looking to boost their bottom lines via charitable donations? Because many decisions are intuitive, organizations should focus on the donor’s experience during the act of giving to be more successful, Cryder says.

“The most effective charities, who do the most good in terms of serving the neediest recipients and serving them well, should be the savviest about potentially highlighting the most aesthetically pleasing causes that they have.

“More broadly, they should be very attuned to allowing their donors to feel good about their donation. If a charitable organization is able to affirm to people that they are doing a good thing, and also ensure that donors are feeling good about giving, they might be more successful long-term.”

Researchers from the London Business School, and the University of Birmingham are coauthors of the study published in the Journal of Marketing Research.

Source: Washington University in St. Louis