Giving publicly – how psychology can help us understand the success of Dan Smith’s donation drive

Dan Smith’s donation drive initially set off to raise $350,000, with $175,000 available for matching. It ultimately ended up raising $1.7 million for highly cost-effective charties and thus likely exceeded anyone’s expectations by far (including our own). Such a turn of events seems very fortunate, but a case can be made that there was more involved than mere luck. Dan was public about his donations and thus likely inspired others to give more (or to give at all). In this view, the incredible success of the fundraiser is a showcase of how public giving can inspire others to do the same.

Effective Altruists have long encouraged others to be public about their giving because it can help spread information about effective charities and the philosophy of effective giving. Many people find out about effective charities through word of mouth, making public giving a great form of advertisement. There are also many common misconceptions about what makes a charity effective, most notably the overhead myth. Publicly announcing where and why one is giving can educate others about what criteria are (and are not) important to maximize the impact of our donations.

Moreover, giving publicly can encourage others to donate as well, creating stronger norms around giving to charity. Social norms have a powerful effect on one’s behavior. Helping to create these norms could therefore be one of the most impactful effects of one’s donation. In a field experiment, psychology researchers found that if they mentioned that a previous donor had donated $300, new donations were on average $13 higher and donors were more likely to give the following year. Simply knowing that others are giving can encourage all of us to donate more money and donate more often.

Publicly giving can also challenge the norm of self-interest. Americans tend to assume that others are more self-interested than they actually are. In a psychological study conducted by researchers from Princeton University, participants significantly overestimated how much others would favor policies that privilege them over others. Because of this bias, many Americans might feel pressure to not be charitable out of a desire to appear as self-interested as their peers. Individuals can challenge the assumption of self-interest and set better norms around charitable giving by making their donations public.  

Examining Dan Smith’s donation drive with this evidence in mind, it’s plausible that the set up of Dan’s challenge tapped into these psychological factors. Dan Smith announced his donation drive on November 14th, starting off with $175,000 in available matching funds for nine charities for a reach-goal of $350,000. It seems that Dan’s initial post as well as the following post on his motivation helped to create a norm around giving effectively and challenged the notion that people are primarily self-interested. This new norm of altruism was reinforced by the actions of Martin Crowley, Tom Crowley, and an anonymous donor. By consistently announcing his own and his collaborator’s donations on his blog and on social media, Dan Smith likely caused more outside donors to contribute to his drive. Dan Smith’s donation drive became a rallying point for effective giving, allowing him to far exceed the drive’s initial goals.

Further reading

 “Why I not only give what I can but also campaign for Giving What We Can” (GWWC, 2016)

“Why publicly and proudly donating to charity is necessary in the digital revolution” (The Vocal for Medium, 2016)

“To inspire people to give, be public about your donation” (Peter Hurford, 2014)

“How charities can get more out of donors” (Anna Prior for WSJ, 2014)

“Hey Look at Me: The Effect of Giving Circles on Giving” (Dean Karlan and Margaret A. McConnell, 2013)