New term 'conspicuous giving' delves into psychology of giving

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 14 2012 6:00 p.m. MDT

Talpalaru's research doesn't define conspicuous giving as good or bad. It is intended instead to open up discussion and give donators something to consider.

"What I'm arguing for is for people to become aware that this pressure exists," she said. "The aim of my research is to point to all these interconnected examples of conspicuous giving and let people know about it."

Why we give

"Giving does make people happier," said Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University and a founding member of the Center for Advanced Hindsight. "There is fantastic research recently that shows giving even small things like a cup of coffee makes people happy."

The need for recognition is a powerful force behind why people give as well, he said.

"On top of the internal happiness that we get from giving, we also get reputational issues," he said. "That is a separate feeling that is about telling other people who we are and getting other people to appreciate us."

Giving as a selfless act still exists, said Eileen Heisman, CEO of the National Philanthropic Trust, and is in fact a prominent factor for many people.

"For most people at the end of the day, they are giving because that cause is really important to them," she said. "It's not the tax deduction but the cause that stirs them."

The best giving is done for a cause that deeply touches the donor's heart and is not done because of a current trend of media pressure, Cottrell said.

Effective giving

Ariely cited Bill Gates as an example of someone who is not only generous but also thoughtful and smart with his giving.

"If we just give to give that's great, but if we give in a way that maximizes the welfare of what we're doing I think that's much better," Ariely said. "People need to be thinking about how they are going to give in an efficient way."

Heisman has some suggestions as well as to how individuals can give most effectively.

"It's important not to feel overwhelmed. Don't be swayed by fads or celebrities," she said. "Pick two or three causes and give fewer but larger gifts to those causes. Also, stay with those causes for three to five years. Don't be fickle. Whatever your interests are you can apply those principles."

Following these simple guides not only helps the individual but also the charity. Heisman said charities appreciate individuals who showcase some dedication and longevity to a cause.

"I think that people should give, but I do think that people need to have a strategy for what they want to do," Ariely said. "People should have a thoughtful process about what they care about and why they care about it.

Does it matter?

Although there can be complications when giving becomes pressurized or a public outcry for recognition, some experts say that as long as giving is taking place it is generally a good thing for the philanthropic field.

If the impact of the money is the same and brings access to books, does it really matter the size of the name on the building?" Heisman said. "I think the real questions are where's the money going and is it doing good?"

Ariely has a similar perspective. He said giving, for any reason, still makes a difference.

"I think conspicuous giving is actually a good thing," Ariely said. "Satisfying our ego is a nice thing, and we could do it by buying a big house or we could do it by donating. Donating is a nicer thing to do, and on top of that it sends signals to other people that donating is a good thing to do."

Despite potential negative consequences, celebrities can use their media presence to simply raise awareness of an issue, Ariely said, and they often help the average citizen to feel more associated with a certain cause.

"Celebrities are very helpful to get people to continuously think about the issues of giving," Ariely said. "Celebrities give a face to a campaign and when the campaign has a face, it's sometimes easier to feel connected to it."

Steve Barsuhn, a pastor for the nondenominational Rocky Mountain Bible Church, said his organization treats giving with anonymity.

"As a pastor, I have no idea who gives what," he said. "We do not recognize givers. We believe it is a matter between them and God and what you want to do for the Lord and how you show gratitude."

Experts agree that thoughtful giving based upon what the donator truly cares about will be most rewarding for both giver and receiver in the long run.

"People should give thoughtfully and respond to people who are connected to their agendas," Ariely said. "Thinking carefully about what you care about and then following up on that is a good recipe for a better future."

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