An Empathy Gap?

A new study conducted by researchers at Stanford, suggests that there is an “empathy gap” between men and women that affects charitable giving.  

To study differences in men and women and charitable giving, the researchers tested responses to appeals for support for a fictional organization they called the Coalition to Reduce Poverty.

The study broke the 1,1715-person sample into 5 test groups and compared the responses of men and women in each of the sub-samples. Each of the four test groups received an excerpt of what they believed to be the last appeal letter of the Coalition to Reduce Poverty. The four different test groups were presented with an segment of the appeal that was based on different factors:  (1) efficacy (98% of donations go directly to help the poor), (2) social cues or pressure (assertions that many other donors were getting involved), (3) social justice (claims that the poor had not had the same opportunities as other Americans), and (4) a self-interest appeal.  The self-interest appeal reminded the respondents that we are all inter-connected and suggested that the poverty of some drags down the economy of all, aggravating social problems like crime. A fifth group, a control group, was given no passage from the appeal.

With the first three appeals, women’s giving surpassed that of men’s.  It was only with the 4th type of appeal—the one that researchers called the “self interest” appeal—that men’s giving was on par with women’s. Men’s giving response to this appeal increased.

Through analysis, the researchers found that all other factors—other than the respondents’ level of empathy which was higher in women than in men—were insignificant in explaining differences between the giving responses of men and the giving responses of women.  They conclude that empathy drives a gender gap in charitable giving.

In reporting on this study, Alex Daniels of the Chronicle of Philanthropy suggests that appeals based on self-interest (or mutual interest) are more likely to be effective with men. Interestingly, the study tested not only respondents’ willingness to give, but also their willingness to volunteer. Women’s willingness to volunteer declined in response to the appeals based on self-interest.

While messages of self interest may increase men’s willingness to give, these same types of appeals may also have an adverse affect on women.

The Take-Away:  

What’s a fundraiser to do?  Segment!  It may be impractical to segment a direct mail appeal because so often men and women are found in the same homes, but email marketing can be personalized for each individual recipient so segmenting an email list in online campaigns and tailoring the pitch by gender may be an effective strategy.

The complete study is due out in the next edition of the journal Social Science Research.

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