#Charity: Taking Welfare Viral

Haris Khan

It’s happened to everyone: the 12-year old down the street knocks on your door, and she’s raising money for cancer research, or the homeless, or heart disease. It doesn’t really matter what the cause is: odds are that your heart melted, and you handed the kid a five dollar bill. Meanwhile, the pre-addressed ‘return to sender’ envelope from the same charity lies, unused and neglected, deep in your recycling box. The child is so much more effective than the envelope because giving is social.

Charities have known this for a while. High school children in Canada are inundated with sponsorship schemes that reward their efforts to elicit donations from family and friends. Academic research backs it up too; alumni are more likely to give to their universities if they are personally solicited by a classmate. In the lab, researchers find that people who donate as part of a group, in which donations are made public, give more than those who do so in private. People also don’t want to look stingy in relation to other givers: visitors to a national park in Costa Rica gave more when provided with information about previous donations. It is clear that social perceptions have a huge influence on how we give, who we give to, and how much we give.

While the kids on the doorstep are undoubtedly effective, they can only knock on so many doors. That is why charities have taken to online social networks to leverage relationships in order to increase donations. A whopping 98 percent of non-profits have a Facebook presence, followed closely by Twitter at 74 percent. And this presence pays dividends: peer-to-peer giving increased 70 percent between 2013 and 2014, with the average donation jumping 50 percent during that time. The effectiveness of social giving is undisputed and growing, especially as more of our financial lives move online.

The other side of the social coin is that people want to share information about their giving. This part is easy. We’ve loved telling people about how charitable we are long before the advent of online social networks. Whether it is the name of the donor on the new hospital wing, or the bright yellow ‘Livestrong’ bracelets that were all the rage in the early 2000’s, sharing charitable behaviour undoubtedly makes us feel good. The more pessimistic would suggest that it’s self congratulatory, and that charity should be private and somber. Regardless if that’s true or not, it does result in huge amounts of donations. Livestrong, for example, sold 80 million bracelets, helping to raise almost half a billion dollars for cancer research over a 15 year period. Making charitable behaviour public changes the cost-benefit analysis by adding an extra benefit, namely the social benefits that come with the perception of being charitable.

#GivingTuesday, which falls on December 1st this year, takes donation sharing into the digital age. Twitter users will make giving go viral, with participants tweeting at charities that receive their donations. Seeing your timeline filled with donations exerts social pressure: it makes giving cool. Not donating and tweeting on December 1st is like not having a yellow bracelet. It is a visible indication that you decided not to give to charity.

This all means that charities, religious organisations, NGO’s, universities, and any other organisation that relies, even in part, on donations need to adapt their strategies to make giving more social. The combination of the facts that people want to share their giving, and that giving by their peers increases when individuals share their donation info, provides a huge opportunity for charities to raise large amounts of money. The exact form that viral charity will take is impossible to predict, but a badge on your Facebook profile, a custom Instagram post, or a special box on your LinkedIn page are all within the realm of possibility. Going viral isn’t easy, but the organisations that do so now – thanks to the exponential increase in the size of our networks – will be able to access much larger networks than those still stuck in the offline age.

Judgement on whether this evolution of charity is a cause for high-tech euphoria or sagely grumbling for the’ good old days’ must be based on its results.  Taking the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge of 2014 as an example, the effectiveness of social charity to raise awareness and funds cannot be disputed. The challenge, which involved 1.2 million Facebook videos and celebrities like LeBron James, Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg , resulted in an eighteen-fold increase in views on the ALS Wikipedia page and USD 100m to the ALS Association,  with proportional donations in other western countries. Whether or not participation is self-congratulatory, or somehow trivialises the cause, is irrelevant in the face of the massive improvements in donations and awareness.

Making giving social leverages our natural tendency to share in order to improve charitable outcomes. If it happens to make charity fun along the way, that’s just the icing on the ice bucket.


Haris Khan is a Master of Public Policy Candidate in the Class of 2017. Very generally, his interests lie in understanding the incentive structures that public policy presents to actors, and how organisations can change them to better to achieve their goals. Recently, he has begun to appreciate the difficulty of writing about himself in the third person.

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