A gift for your donation? Bah, humbug!

Those coffee mugs and tote bags may do more harm than good.

Charities and nonprofits of all kinds know the secret to encouraging first-timers to make a donation: offer some kind of modest thank-you gift in return. But maybe they’re wrong, says psychologist George E. Newman ’08PhD. “We found that people who are offered gifts are actually less willing to give, and [they] give less, than people who are simply asked to donate without the added incentive,” says Newman, an organizational behavior professor at the School of Management. “It’s completely counterintuitive,” he concedes.

In a series of six experiments, reported in the October 2012 Journal of Economic Psychology, Newman and coauthor Y. Jeremy Shen ’11PhD examined various aspects of how low-value, non-monetary gifts affect charitable giving.

Working with more than 1,300 adults, they found that while their subjects believed they would give more if they got a premium in return, they actually gave less. In one experiment, for example, a group of 294 adults were willing to give a median amount of $25 if no gift was attached to their donation—but a median of only $20 with a gift. Experiments showed it didn’t matter what the value of the gift was (a five-dollar pen versus a 75-cent pen) or whether it was perceived as desirable (a box of chocolates versus an ugly tie).

Newman attributes this effect to the fact that gifts can lessen the altruistic satisfaction people get from giving. “There’s something special about charitable giving,” he says. “Making it seem to be contingent on a thank-you gift may raise doubts about the purity of the potential donor’s motivation and ‘crowd out’ the impulse to give.”

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