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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.

Click for the Giving Special Section! Click for more Giving stories

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.