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Charity begins at home

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Professor Stephen Knowles: The research shows that many people place more weight on where money is spent than on the need of the recipient or the effectiveness of the donation.

New Zealanders are ranked among the most generous people in the world, but what drives their altruistic behaviours?

Professor Stephen Knowles (Economics) has been leading altruism research at Otago for many years.

Based on laboratory experiments – typically involving student participants earning and donating real money – and on postal and online surveys, much of the research has tested the idiom that charity begins at home.

The conclusion is that, for many people, it does.

Knowles says that people wanting to do the most good should donate to charities helping poor people in developing countries, yet many donors prefer to help people in New Zealand.

“The benefits of anti-malaria bed nets in Africa are huge for a reasonably small investment. There aren’t projects like that in New Zealand that can improve people’s health for such small sums of money.”

The research shows that many people place more weight on where money is spent than on the need of the recipient or the effectiveness of the donation, and are unaware or do not believe that donations achieve more in poor countries.

Knowles says that a further explanation for the paradox relates to weight of numbers – there are so many more New Zealand charities from which to choose – but when they gave people a stark choice between a charity helping people in New Zealand or a charity helping people in a poor country, the lion’s share still went to the local charity.

“The benefits of anti-malaria bed nets in Africa are huge for a reasonably small investment. There aren’t projects like that in New Zealand that can improve people’s health for such small sums of money.”

One of Knowles’ early research projects looked at perceptions of poverty. It found that donations were slightly higher when poverty was seen to be outside of the recipient’s control – such as poverty attributed to the effects of global warming, as opposed to choosing to have a large family.

Another laboratory experiment suggests that it makes little difference whether a verbal or written request is made for money, but a related experiment showed that directly asking people for money is far more effective than a more subtle request, such as a donation box.

And what’s the most effective way of collecting donations?

Knowles says that it is important to approach people when they are not busy, such as with a collection bucket (and preferably also an EFTPOS machine) when people are queuing for a sports event.

Funding

  • University of Otago Research Grant