Why make a giving pledge when you could just donate?

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If you’re already on board with donating to effective charities, you might ask: why make a public pledge? Especially when commitments can be daunting and there’s something a little uncomfortable about donating in public - we might think it’s easier to remain uncommitted and anonymous.

At Giving What We Can we think it’s really important we develop a culture of giving which focuses on what most helps the beneficiaries of charity.

So if charity is about the beneficiaries, then the question becomes: what most benefits them?

We think you can do even more good by taking a public pledge than you might by donating on your own.

From the beneficiary’s perspective, a dollar’s a dollar. It doesn’t matter whether money is provided publicly or privately and it doesn’t matter whether the donor is an individual or a member of a community. What matters is the amount and effectiveness of the support.

We find that public pledges increase both the amount and effectiveness of the support for three main reasons:

  1. Commitment
  2. Community
  3. Culture

Commitment

Taking the Pledge can work as a form of 'pre-commitment', a psychological strategy for sticking to goals we may otherwise be tempted to give up.

The idea, as formulated by Nobel prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling, is to make it more costly or difficult for your future self to give up on your goals. Examples of this include signing up for a year’s gym membership at a time (so that it feels wasteful if you later fail to attend) or giving friends or family a deadline for when they should expect work from you (so you lose face if you put it off too long).

There is increasing evidence that pre-committing can help people who want to donate to charity to stick to their goals. Once you have taken the Pledge, giving is no longer simply a matter of charity, but of keeping your promise. The prospect of breaking a promise will make most people more likely to stick to their giving goals, and that can only be a good thing.

Community

By forming a group, we can accomplish difficult goals that we might have trouble achieving alone. Joining a community with a strong identity is recognised by psychologists as one of the more effective means of inspiring positive behavioural change. We encourage each other, and are motivated in part by a desire not to disappoint.

Another advantage of being part of our community is access to a range of people with different experiences and expertise, all of whom share the desire to find the most effective ways to make the world a better place. It allows us to pool our knowledge and share our insights, to the benefit of everyone.

Culture

We are incredibly sensitive to the behaviour of those around us. There is a well-documented phenomenon called the Bystander Effect, where people fail to come to the aid of others in distress because the people around them are also doing nothing to help. The opposite effect also exists: We are more likely to act altruistically if we know that others are already doing so.

One result of this is that people are more likely to give to charity if they know that a large percentage of their peers do, and less likely to do so if they believe that giving is unusual. Unfortunately, because charity tends to be treated as a private matter, we can easily get the impression that it is something unusual, which makes us less likely to give ourselves.

The reason that we ask our members to take the Pledge publicly and allow their names to be made public is that by doing so, we seek to normalise giving (and effective giving in particular), encouraging those around us to give more than they otherwise would. We want to inspire people and help to create a more generous culture in the developed world.

Join our community

Join the Giving What We Can community by taking a pledge to donate a meaningful portion of your income to help improve the lives of others. It can help you to live up to your values, meet like-minded people, and inspire others to follow suit.

Learn more

Not ready to pledge? You can also donate to an effective charity, sign up to our newsletter, read our blog, attend an event, join an effective altruism group, or get in touch if you’d like to discuss anything.

Sources

  • Breman, Anna (2006). "Give More Tomorrow: A Field Experiment on Intertemporal Choice in Charitable Giving", Stockholm School of Economics Working Paper.

  • Latané, Bibb and Judith Rodin (1969). "A lady in distress: Inhibiting effects of friends and strangers on bystander intervention", Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 5 (2).

  • Mcgarty, Craig et al (1994). "The Effects of Salient Group Memberships on Persuasion." Small Group Research, 25.

  • Schelling, Thomas (1978). “Egonomics, or the Art of Self-Management”, The American Economic Review, Vol. 68 No. 2, 290.