The Politics of Charitable Donations


Americans tend to give charitable gifts to causes that share their political values. So says a 2012 collaborative study from Penn State, Rice University and the University of Texas at San Antonio. At a time when the American political scene is deeply divided, the aim of the study was to examine how this stratification affects charitable giving. “The political divide not only impacts political actions, but everyday actions such as donating to charity,” said Vikas Mittal, co-author of the study and a professor at Rice University. “When you ask people if their donation behavior to a charity helping children will change because of their political leanings most say, ‘Of course not!’ We wanted to see if that is true or not.”


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The published results, which were highlighted in the International Journal of Research in Marketing: Special Issue on Consumer Identities, were culled from three studies, two of which involved a sample of adults on either side of the political spectrum and a randomized third study involving students. Participants were asked why conservatives or liberals would be more or less inclined to donate to specific charities.

Tradition And Authority

Mittal, who serves as the J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University, says Republicans and Democrats are both strongly impacted by how they perceive a charity’s moral outlook and alignment. Republicans see their own moral foundation as rooted in honoring tradition and authority, purity, and loyalty. Democrats see their moral underpinnings as based on equality and protection against harm.

For the purposes of their research, the scientists created two different descriptions for a charity they called, “Rebuilding Together.” The wording of the two descriptions was varied in subtle ways to suggest one of two political acculturations. One description depicted the organization as supporting loyalty and American traditions while the second description suggested the organization was committed to furthering and protecting equality. Much of this depends on a donors purposes, whether a private individual like Mark Birnbaum, or a corporate philanthropist.

In those participants who found morals to be of high importance, the Republicans were three times more likely than Democrats to donate to charities described as supporting working class American families, the community, and American traditions. Democrats, on the other hand, were two times more likely than Republicans to donate to charities described as ensuring the protection of the home to all individuals.

Protection From Harm

In two other studies, the researchers examined reactions to a children’s advocacy charity which seeks to end child abuse through a variety of initiatives. The charity was said to be either aligned with the moral foundations of purity and loyalty, or with equality and protection from harm. Once again choosing to focus on participants who highly value morals, the study authors discovered that protection from harm yielded a more positive response from Democrats, while Republicans said they were more likely to donate to the charity when it expressed an alignment with the ideals of community loyalty and purity.

“We found that while both Republicans and Democrats tend to equally value justice and caring for the vulnerable, Republicans place a much higher value on issues of purity and respect for authority,” said Karen Page Winterich, one of the co-authors of this study as well as an assistant professor of marketing at Penn State. “Given these differences, Republicans are more inclined to donate to a charity when these values of purity and respect are met, whereas Democrats are more inclined to donate when the emphasis is purely on equality or protection rather than respect or purity.”

“Charities, in addition to focusing on their main mission, must also clarify how their mission is aligned with the moral foundations of a donor’s political identity,” said Yinlong Zhang, a study from the University of Texas at San Antonio, where he is an associate professor of marketing. “A very simple repositioning of the charity’s description so that it aligns with a person’s political identity can increase donation intentions two- or threefold. Of course, this raises important questions for charities in terms of their communication strategy. But assuming this divide does not exist can only hurt their chances of maximizing donations from liberals and conservatives.”

Wider Appeal?

One wonders if a charity could be branded to reflect the sensibilities of both Republicans and Democrats to generate a broader base of donors. Can a charity appeal to both sides of the political spectrum in their promotional materials?

Take, for example, an organization that funds afterschool programs for children, such as the car donation charity, Kars4Kids. It is theoretically possible to paint the organization as serving the communities in which its programs are located, thus giving the organization a profile that is attractive to Republicans, while at the same time, the Kars4Kids: afterschool programs can be depicted as keeping children off the streets and safe from crime-ridden streets or homes where there may be abuse. Both depictions would be true.

Would a balanced approach in a charity’s promotional materials tend to dilute the message and make the brand “fuzzy?” Or would these efforts be rewarded by wider appeal and donations from both sides of the divide? More research on this issue might help clarify this intriguing idea.

Esti Landau is a non-profit consultant.

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