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New term 'conspicuous giving' delves into psychology of giving

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 14 2012 6:44 p.m. MDT

American actor Sean Penn carries the belongings of a person displaced by the earthquake as people are relocated from the Petion ville Golf Club to a new camp, Corail-Cesselesse, in Port-au-Prince, Saturday, April 10, 2010. Haiti's government is beginning to relocate thousands of people in a multi-agency effort to move people to higher ground before the rainy season.

Ramon Espinosa, Associated Press

Celebrity athletes typically give money to popular, well-known charities. Not golfer Tom Lehman.

"He had a charity on his list that no one outside the state of Arizona had ever heard of," said Robert Cottrell, a development consultant for both nonprofits and major donors. "His list of giving was not impressive in terms of big-name organizations, but the people he gave to needed it just as much. He doesn't give for any kind of social acceptance."

Lehman is the exception, experts say. More and more, people are seeking prestige, recognition and public adulation for their giving, or are donating because of social pressure. One researcher calls this growing phenomenon "conspicuous giving."

The idea of giving to receive recognition is as old as giving itself. Researchers, however, are interested in the changing forces that come into play and influence giving today in a media-saturated society. The increasing media presence of charitable celebrities and causes, the expanding influence of social media and the expectation that the wealthy should donate heavily, all influence both giver and receiver. This presents both potential problems, but also opportunity, experts say.

Conspicuous Giving

Conspicuous giving is a phrase coined by University of Alberta professor Margrit Talpalaru, who presented the idea at a recent Humanities and Social Sciences conference.

She based the phrase on English sociologist Thorstein Veblen's term "conspicuous consumption," which describes spending money and buying luxury items to display economic power.

Talpalaru defined conspicuous giving as the very visible act of giving money or time for charity. She based her research on qualitative analysis of the media, but she recognized giving for recognition dates back hundreds of years. Her research did unearth a recent trend, however.

"What is new is the increasing pressure on middle-class people to get involved in various types of giving, such as volunteering or donating money," she said. "The pressure has moved from the very rich and trickled down to ordinary people."

The pressure largely comes from media outlets such as television and social networks, where celebrities and activists have a visible platform to promote their causes.

"A society likes ours is very much interested in every step celebrities take," Talpalaru said. "For better or for worse, celebrities are models of behavior."

In some cases, it is for worse. Many celebrities promote well-known, larger charities. This leaves many smaller, grassroots initiatives excluded from media hype and donor activity. Cottrell suggested donators investigate smaller local charities that may be just as effective as a larger, more established charity.

"There are all these great charities that are off the radar screen but are not big enough to create a social buzz," he said. "But often they are doing superb work."

When conspicuous giving occurs, it can create other problems, experts say. Gifts given in response to a social trend or movement can actually hurt a charity in the long run, Cottrell said.

"An organization might expand programs due to a temporary spike in giving that they will have to abandon one or two years later," he said. "This can create problems for charities in the long run because many of them are not savvy enough to understand what's going on. Giving to follow a trend produces temporary insincere support for the wrong reasons."

Unwelcome pressure to give can also create an issue, Talpalaru said. Wealthy celebrities such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have set new expectations that the rich should give a substantial amount of money to charity.

"People can take advantage of the generosity of their peers," she said. "The door is open to exploitation when giving becomes such a big thing."

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