The psychology behind how much money people give to charity

The surprising reasons why some people give more than others, and how you can start practically planning to give more.

The psychology behind how much money people give to charity
[Photo: worldofstock/iStock]

When Shamila Nduriri—the creative director of jewelry brand Dalasini—was younger, her charitable giving was mostly reserved for family members who needed financial assistance. Over time, she started giving to charity more broadly, but it wasn’t until 2015 that she found a cause that really grabbed her. “I came across a news article about people with albinism in Tanzania who were being hunted for their limbs, and I was horrified,” she says. “That’s when I mentally decided that I need to start giving back more regularly and find something that I connected with and could be passionate about.”


Nduriri decided to bake her giving efforts into her jewelry business and now gives 10% of her proceeds to an albinism charity and wildlife conservation organization. “I’m thinking about what I want to be remembered by,” she says. “You can chase your career, but at the end of the day that doesn’t mean anything. I just want to try and make a difference.”

If, like Nduriri, you’re looking to give back but not sure where to start, here are some things to keep in mind:

How to give

Between Facebook fundraisers and GoFundMe campaigns, it’s now easy to get overwhelmed by the preponderance of charitable avenues available to you. Some people—especially those whose income is on the lower end—opt to give when something speaks to them, rather than setting aside a certain amount of money each year to put toward specific charities. According to a survey conducted by nonprofit fundraising platform Classy, young people are more inclined to support a cause if a family member or friend encourages them to or is directly involved. They’re also more drawn to charities that makes it easy to donate—and in fact, they’re likelier to trust them with their money.

When financial planner Tyler Reeves works with his clients, he starts by inquiring about people’s giving habits to get a sense of their mindset. “We kind of work backgrounds from there to make sure the giving isn’t going to put any of their requirements—say, mortgage payments—in danger,” he says.

One way to narrow down your options is to evaluate how to give based on how far your money will go. “I’ve found that it helps to know what your specific gift can do,” says Britton Gregory, who helps techies with financial planning. “What can the charitable organization do with $20 a month? $50? $100? Tying it to specific outcomes helps the client anchor to something real, as opposed to an abstract number.”

Whatever you decide, the most important step you can take is to just start giving, according to Reeves. “What I’ve found is most people who are going to give later in life give earlier in life, too,” Reeves says. “It’s much more of a calling to do so, and they do that whether they’re making $50,000 or $200,000 a year.”


When to give

Reeves believes that if you start giving earlier, even in small amounts, you’re more likely to continue doing so later in life. “Charitable giving kind of works just like retirement savings or saving for anything,” he says. “The amount that you give isn’t nearly as important as starting to give.” If you really cannot afford to give yet, Reeves recommends that you at least plan for when you will be able to start and, for example, which organizations you might support.

Regardless of how much you can or can’t give, it’s important to include charitable donations in your financial planning each year. Set a goal at the beginning of the year for how much you want to spend and which charities you want to back—and, as much as possible, don’t stray too far from it. You may be tempted to give to causes that pop up through the year, whether that means donating to natural disaster relief or supporting a friend’s GoFundMe. If it’s important to you to contribute to such causes, account for it in your financial plan and allocate a sum of money for more spontaneous donations.

But mapping out what you want to donate in a given year can also ensure you don’t overextend yourself or feel pressure to give to every cause you encounter. “Every time a new organization sends something in the mail, you’ve already made the decision,” Reeves says. “If you want to reassess next year, great, do it then. But don’t make yourself make decisions on a monthly basis about who you’re giving to.”

What you should give

You might have seen the 10% figure thrown around, which hails in part from the Christian tradition of giving to the church. But how much of your earnings should you really give away?

It all depends on your financial circumstances, Reeves says. Some people may give no more than 5%, while others might give away up to 15% or more. Lower-income people have a tendency to give more in proportion to their earnings. While there are a number of reasons for that—including knowing how far that money can go for a family in need—Reeves says it’s also because they don’t always calculate how much they’re giving away as a percentage of what they make. “When you’re a normal person and you don’t have vast amounts of money, you’re going to be working in round numbers,” Reeves says. If you have a few hundred dollars left over at the end of each month, you might end up donating the bulk of it.

Gregory and Reeves both stress the importance of not giving more than you can comfortably afford, especially if you need to pay off debts or aren’t saving enough for retirement. “I’ve learned to take a more personalized approach, creating a goal that is reasonable given their current circumstances, and working on setting the bar higher each year,” Gregory says. “In other words, the answer to ‘how much should I give?’ is often simply ‘more than you gave last year.'”

About the author

Pavithra Mohan is a staff writer for Fast Company.