Research Goals

The overarching goal of the Science of Philanthropy Initiative (SPI) is to develop a deeper understanding of the types of social preferences that shape philanthropic giving (including altruism, reciprocity, inequity aversion, warm-glow giving, cooperation and generosity) and to apply this knowledge to inform both practitioners and policymakers interested in philanthropy and the private provision of public goods. The research conducted at the initiative will be focused on using the principles of behavioral economics to measure social preferences and investigate how preferences and beliefs influence charitable giving and associated acts of philanthropy. The use of the experimental methodology will be emphasized, incorporating a novel, multi-faceted data generation approach that includes laboratory experiments, field experiments, focus groups and surveys. The series of proposed studies at SPI aim to disentangle competing hypotheses and develop new theoretical models explaining human behavior and the motivation for charitable giving.

We launch the SPI research program this year by beginning to answer the following major open questions:

The Supply Side and Human Behavior
  • What are the motivations for giving? Disentangling the competing theories of altruism, warm-glow, and potentially others, to discover why individuals choose to give and what factors attenuate those motivations. 
  • How do preferences and beliefs revolving around generosity and giving translate into actual behaviors, choices and actions? 
  • What is the relationship of social preferences with culture (as expressed by beliefs, moral values, social norms, and world outlook)? Artefactual field experiments across cultures can help characterize these connections. How (and when) do social preferences develop across the life span, and what are the effects of “nature” or “nurture”? 
  • How do charitable donations of time and money differ? More generally, are time and money substitutes or complements?
The Demand Side and Solicitation Mechanisms
  • If a charity has upfront money, is it better served using this money to incentivize those eliciting the contributions, potential donors, or both? 
  • Why do some charities succeed but others fail, and how do solicitation mechanisms or social distance of donors play a role? 
  • What causes donors to remain committed to the cause, what are the best solicitation mechanisms to encourage continuing donations, and do these differ from mechanisms aimed to prompt initial donations? 
  • How do social information, norms or social pressure, and social distance affect giving for in-group versus out-group donors? 
The Market for Charity Contributions and Public Policy Implications
  • What is the underlying reason for the crowding out effect of government grants? Is it that donors reduce/reallocate contributions when learning that a charity has received a grant, or is it that charities reallocate fund-raising efforts after receiving grants? 
  • Do similar patterns of crowding out arise if the source of funds is a private donor or foundation? 
  • What are the efficiency gains and losses associated with competition amongst charities? 
  • What is the effect of charitable lotteries and other solicitation mechanisms – does using incentives crowd in new donors, or lead to reallocation of donors across charities? 
  • What is the effect of cause-related marketing on individual donations in the short and long run? Do such campaigns provide the donor moral cover to avoid future acts of charity and therefore crowd-out future philanthropic activities? 

Research Nuggets

The SPI internal kickoff meeting involved several days of planning - teams were formed and key Year 1 research areas were pinpointed. John List and Michael Price are leading an effort to learn more about the value of donor data for charities. New partnerships with philanthropic organizations are planned, and door-to-door, phone and mail solicitation methods will be explored. In particular, learning more about 'what happens when charities compete' will be a focus.

John List, Jean Decety and Anya Samek are working more closely with the 'Living Lab' at the Chicago Heights Early Childhood Center to explore the origins of charitable acts. The 'Living Lab' is a participant pool of over 2,000 households in the south side of Chicago, all parents of 3, 4, 5 and 6-year olds. Our research with this population can give us a deeper understanding of motivations for charitable giving - warm glow, altruism, social pressure - and how these motivations develop across the lifecycle.

Jean Decety has gathered a team of researchers from around the world who will join together to explore giving across cultures. Jean's team will examine the neurodevelopment (from 4-18 years) of moral decision-making and empathy in cultures as diverse as the US, China, India, Turkey and South Africa. Assisting Jean is the new SPI postdoctoral research scholar, Jason Cowell. 

Researchers seeking experimental designs, scripts or data from published work, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for assistance.