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Small steps towards the Big Society?

Mike Sanders and Sarah Smith

 

Last week’s Green Paper set out the government’s strategy for encouraging people to give time and money – part of its vision of a Big Society. There were few concrete ideas – beyond the suggestion that ATMs provide prompts to donate – but instead a set of guiding principles: Great opportunities, Information, Visibility, Exchange and reciprocity and Support (GIVES). In a nutshell – people need new and exciting ways to give (such as at ATMs) and they need to know about them; their giving needs to be visible and it needs to be valued. This is a potentially exciting time for the sector – even as many are worried about the effects of government spending cutbacks – it provides fertile ground for experimentation to see what works and what does not. In designing potential pilots, there is a growing body of evidence to build on.

A number of field experiments with individual charities have found successful triggers that can encourage people to give – these include announcing lead donations, providing a match, rewarding donors with small gifts, making donations public and telling people how much others have given. The findings have led people to generalize about what motivates people to give – signals of quality for individual charities, the desire for prestige, reciprocity etc – yet single-charity studies can only tell us about what motivates people to give to specific charities. None of these studies has looked at whether the triggers simply cause people to give more to charity A at the expense of charity B. There is a real risk that all the shiny new opportunities simply cause people to change the way that they give and a need to show that new schemes increase total giving, not just shuffle it around. To achieve that, there needs to be more understanding of what the real barriers are to people giving – and what can be done to eliminate them.

One of the big ideas in behavioural economics is that defaults can have a powerful effect on people’s behavior in overcoming inertia; they have been shown to work in relation to employer pensions with auto-enrolment leading to big increases in participation. Payroll giving is an obvious extension that we hope to test. But one important lesson from past research is that the detail of the default matters – a low default, while increasing participation, could lead to some people reducing the amount that they give. There also needs to be evidence that a scheme that helps someone to help others can work as well as a scheme that helps someone to help their future selves.

The emphasis on visibility accords with the findings from research which finds positive peer effects. For example, Frey and Meier (2004)[1] found that when students were told that a higher proportion of past students had donated to a good cause, 64 per cent compared to 46 per cent, this had a positive effect on the proportion who gave – but the increase was small at around 2 percentage points. But, as with defaults, providing so-called “social information” can have a negative effect if the amounts that others have given are low. Alpizar et al (2008)[2] found that informing people about a low modal donation increased participation but reduced the average donation (compared to no social information). More interestingly for the ATM proposal, suggestions to give particular amounts that are imposed from above have been found to have a negative effect. Alpizar & Martinsson (2010)[3], show that compared with a social reference that comes from peers, a suggestion from the charity reduced both the probability of giving and the conditional amount given.

Evidence from ultimatum games in the lab, and from elsewhere, suggests that individuals have a preference for fairness[4], and that this preference is a driving force behind their charitable donations. Based on this, and the increasing prevalence of ideas such as a “Robin Hood tax” and “UK Uncut”, suggesting a belief that corporations, and in particular banks, are bearing too little of the burden of economic hardship, would seem to suggest that the encouraging charitable giving through boxes emblazoned with the logos of banks may not have the desired effect. One response to the ATM suggestion on BBC’s Have Your Say website was that “If bank cards started nagging me to donate I think I’d give LESS not more[5].

 


[1] Frey, B. & Meier, S. (2004) “Social Comparisons and Pro-social Behavior:  Testing “Conditional Cooperation” in a Field Experiment” American Economic Review Vol 94 No 5 pp 1717-1722

[2] Alpizar, F., Carlsson, F. & Johansson-Stenman, O. (2008) “Anonymity, reciprocity, and conformity: Evidence from voluntary contributions to a national park in Costa Rica” Journal of Public Economics Vol 92 issues 5-6 pp1047-1060

[3] Alpizar & Martinsson (2010) “Don’t tell me what to do, tell me who to

follow! – Field experiment evidence on voluntary donations” Working Papers in Economics No. 452

[4] Barr & Zeitlin (2010) “Dictator Games in the lab and in nature: External validity tested and investigated in Ugandan Primary Schools” CSAE WPS/2010-11

[5] BBC (2010): “Ministers urge giving to charity at the cash machine” BBC News Website http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-12085506

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