Testing for altruism and social pressure in charitable giving

Q J Econ. 2012;127(1):1-56. doi: 10.1093/qje/qjr050.


Every year, 90% of Americans give money to charities. Is such generosity necessarily welfare enhancing for the giver? We present a theoretical framework that distinguishes two types of motivation: individuals like to give, for example, due to altruism or warm glow, and individuals would rather not give but dislike saying no, for example, due to social pressure. We design a door-to-door fund-raiser in which some households are informed about the exact time of solicitation with a flyer on their doorknobs. Thus, they can seek or avoid the fund-raiser. We find that the flyer reduces the share of households opening the door by 9% to 25% and, if the flyer allows checking a Do Not Disturb box, reduces giving by 28% to 42%. The latter decrease is concentrated among donations smaller than $10. These findings suggest that social pressure is an important determinant of door-to-door giving. Combining data from this and a complementary field experiment, we structurally estimate the model. The estimated social pressure cost of saying no to a solicitor is $3.80 for an in-state charity and $1.40 for an out-of-state charity. Our welfare calculations suggest that our door-to-door fund-raising campaigns on average lower the utility of the potential donors.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Altruism*
  • Charities* / economics
  • Charities* / education
  • Charities* / history
  • Fund Raising* / economics
  • Fund Raising* / history
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Social Behavior* / history
  • Social Responsibility*
  • United States / ethnology