News and analysis
February 13, 2015

Male Donors Respond Best to Pitches That Stress Self-Interest, Study Says

Attention fundraisers: Stop trying to pull on men’s heartstrings, advises a Stanford University study.

Researchers documented an "empathy gap" between men and women when it comes to charitable giving. To get men to respond to cash appeals, it’s best to tell them how the donation will benefit them rather than others in need, according the authors of a forthcoming article in the journal Social Science Research.

Women are generally more likely to give to charity than men, particularly to groups that work with poor people, numerous studies show. There are a variety of ways to explain the difference, the authors write. For instance, women might feel that people are poor because of their bad luck or due to societal failures. Men may be more inclined to blame a lack of skills or the will to succeed.

But the main reason women are more likely to help the needy, the authors of the study say, is that women tend to be more empathetic and compassionate.

"Men are more motivated by messages that say poverty affects them and the people in their lives," says Robb Willer, a Stanford sociology professor and co-author of the study.

Stressing Self-Interest

Mr. Willer and his colleagues tested online fundraising appeals from a fictitious charity called the Coalition to Reduce Poverty on 1,715 potential donors. They made four different types of pitches, each appealing to a different motivation: efficacy, conformity, social injustice, and self-interest.

The efficacy pitch stated that "more than 98 percent of donations go on to directly to benefit the poor." The conformity pitch suggested that many other donors were getting involved. The injustice appeal stated that people "born into poverty never had the opportunities that other Americans had."

None of those approaches brought the male potential donors’ willingness to give or volunteer up to par with their female counterparts.

The fourth type of pitch, designed to trigger a sense of self-interest, included the statement, "Poverty weighs down our interconnected economy, exacerbating many social problems like crime." It was the only type of appeal that raised men’s willingness to give money or volunteer at a rate comparable to that of women.

Mr. Willer said one possible explanation is that men respond better to messages that address deep feelings of responsibility to take care of their families.

Women, however, seemed to be "turned off" by fundraising messages that stressed self-interest. Their willingness to volunteer declined slightly in response to that approach, but Mr. Willer said more research is needed to say so conclusively.

"I’d want to study that more before taking it to the bank," he said.

Send an e-mail to Alex Daniels.