Unpacking Why and How People Donate

Economist Uri Gneezy Says Fundraising Is No Numbers Game

Human Nature: In ‘The Why Axis,’ Uri Gneezy quantifies idiosyncracies.
Courtesy of Ur Gneezy
Human Nature: In ‘The Why Axis,’ Uri Gneezy quantifies idiosyncracies.

By Amy Schiller

Published November 05, 2013.
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We give money to causes that touch us personally — our alma maters, synagogues, the hospitals where we receive lifesaving care. As personal giving is a realm governed by sentiment and emotional attachment, the origins of why we donate may seem unpredictable or irrational.

Enter Uri Gneezy, a behavioral economist who uncovered the patterns of motivations for the decisions people make at work, in school and as donors in his new book, “The Why Axis.” Steven Levitt called the book — which Gneezy coauthored with economist John List — “the next ‘Freakonomics.’” (And in case Levitt’s name is unfamiliar, he wrote the original “Freakonomics.”) Gneezy and List look at the fight for equal pay for women, school performance among at risk kids, and charitable giving, examining how people are incentivized to change their own behavior.

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Jewish charities and donors alike will probably be relieved to hear that they have an alternative to mailing out Hannukah-themed return address labels as an incentive to donate during the winter holiday giving season. Gneezy’s own Jewish heritage plays a role in his research — he credits his upbringing in that swaggering, competitive port city, Tel Aviv, with teaching him about behavioral economics and game theory firsthand. The Forward’s Amy Schiller talked with Gneezy about his ideas about giving.

Amy Schiller: Your book criticizes the anecdotal nature of fundraising strategies, which you feel rely more on unproven adages than empirical research. What has the response been from traditional fundraising experts?

Uri Gneezy: [In fundraising], there is a very strong belief that we’ve done certain things forever, and that these are the right things to do. But intuition only gets us so far. We need evidence.

The main reason for writing the book is we want to make business, charity and public policy more based on evidence. It takes a long time to change behavior. People are very interested in behavioral economics, until we turn our attention to their specific field. In your specific industry, you are much less willing to revise your beliefs. So what we tried to do in the book was to simply show what was more effective. Arguing can’t get you very far.


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