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Donating to a Charitable Cause in Someone’s Name for the Holidays? Not So Fast, This Smith Professor Says

Ekin Ok, assistant professor of marketing at Smith School of Business, wants you to consider these elements.

By Kristen Sears 

It’s mid-December. You’re sitting at your desk and a new message hits your inbox. “A donation has been made on your behalf to…,” it reads.

In recent years, charitable gift-giving–also known as “pro-social” gift-giving–has become an increasingly popular option. As the calendar inches closer towards a busy gift-giving season for many, this type of gift just might be the ticket for a family member, friend or colleague on your list.

But before you hit the donate button, Ekin Ok, an assistant professor of marketing at Smith School of Business, Queen’s University, has some insights you may want to heed. 

This type of gift-giving happens to be the focus of her current research.

“What piqued my interest to look into this was actually a gift I received from a former boss,” she explains. “It was the first time I had received this type of charitable gift, and the concept was new to me.” At first she was intrigued by novelty of the gift, but then she says her “over-analyzing self” took over, opening the door to a flood of questions. Why this gift? Why not a Starbucks gift card? Why this cause? Was it meaningful to the gift-giver? Did they pick it because they thought it would resonate with me? “It was a really surprising, but also thought-provoking gift.”

At the time, available literature on pro-social gift-giving was scarce, but what little did exist showed that recipients don’t always appreciate these gifts as much as givers anticipate they will. This got Ekin thinking about how this might, in turn, affect the relationship between gift-recipients and the charitable organization the gift was made to. 

With this type of gift-giving, there is a bit of an assumption that the recipient will feel a sense of satisfaction about contributing to something good, she explains. Here’s the catch: “We know from research that to feel this moral satisfaction, this feeling of having done good, we need to feel some agency behind the decision.” This is often missing in the context of pro-social gift-giving. 

“Because this type of gift-giving doesn’t present opportunities for recipients to feel agency behind the decision, our ongoing research provides some preliminary evidence that recipients don’t actually feel that happy about it, and by happy I mean the moral kind of happiness that we often experience after doing something for the benefit of others,” Ekin says. 

It can also have unintended negative effects on the organizations the donations are benefiting. While there is the positive gain of that initial donation, of course, these gifts may not always inspire a future relationship between the gift-recipient and the organization. “In some cases, it may even reduce gift-recipients’ willingness to engage with the organization,” Ekin explains.  

All this in mind, pro-social gift-giving remains on the rise. Nearly half of Canadians say they would prefer to receive charitable gifts over material gifts during the holidays. Ekin notes that technology has made pro-social gift-giving more accessible and that more people – especially among younger generations – care about social responsibility and want to reflect this in their consumption choices. 

So, is there a way to make pro-social gift-giving a win-win-win? Various gift-giving research suggests there is.

Ekin speculates that, given what is known from current literature, if gift-givers were to choose an organization that makes the recipient feel like the choice was inspired by them, that may help thwart negative effects that can result from a lack of agency in the decision-making process. 

“Let’s say I’m crazy about dogs. I talk about dogs all the time and everyone who knows me knows I love dogs. If a friend chose an animal rescue organization to donate to on my behalf without my prior knowledge, I would still feel somewhat responsible for having inspired that choice,” Ekin notes.

Another option is to restore some of that agency outright. “The idea of agency is important for building a strong foundation, especially when it comes to moral decisions like this, because we know one of the reasons people act charitably is to help others, but it also helps us feel good about ourselves,” Ekin says. 

Charities can do this by allowing gift-recipients to determine the fate of the donation. Allowing them to direct the gift to a specific area, fund, program or initiative will make them feel more involved in the process and, in turn, increase that sense of moral satisfaction, Ekin notes.

A final item she says could tip the scale and help foster an ongoing relationship between the charitable organization and the gift recipient is something tangible and symbolic that reminds them of the experience, such as a key chain or tote bag – something they would see or use regularly.  

But tread lightly. Ekin says it’s a fine balance and that if people perceive organizations are spending too much on these items, it can have the opposite effect. Research shows consumers’ perceptions of charitable organizations are negatively impacted by marketing that is viewed as expensive or wasteful.

“It’s just about reminding the person that, although indirectly, they have made an impact,” she says.

Interested in more gift-giving insights? Find out why you shouldn’t put a price on a great gift at Smith Business Insight.