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In a recent story for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson explores the intriguing concept of effective altruism. Essentially, the idea is that supporting good causes isn’t just a matter of the heart. Instead, we ought to rationally evaluate how we can do the most good in the world. That might mean that, instead of volunteering at a soup kitchen, you’d be better off taking a high-paying Wall Street job and donating half your earnings to pay for deworming tablets and malaria nets in the developing world.

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In a 1996 paper for Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, S. Wojciech Sokolowski explores the reasons people give to charity. There are two basic theories here, Sokolowski writes, and they’re not mutually exclusive. One says that people are motivated by our personal attitudes and values. The other says we do things because of social forces—our ties to, and interactions with, other people.

To examine this question, Sokolowski uses survey data from random sample of 2,671 US residents who were asked about their charitable giving, involvement in philanthropic organizations, and attitudes. Testing the model that says people’s attitudes and values encourage them to give, he found that people who said they want to help the needy (saying they had goals like “increase opportunities for others” and “improve cultural life of the community”) were most likely to make donations. (Surprisingly, answers indicating a desire to “help the world”, including “protect the environment” and “promote global peace” didn’t have any connection to the likelihood that people would give.)

But the really interesting part came when Sokolowski also looked at a separate set of responses related to social ties. Two factors, church attendance and organizational membership, were more significant than the attitudes toward helping the needy. Not only that, but when he combined the two sets of data, the social factors explained away the attitudinal ones.

In other words, being involved in a church or other organization predicted both a desire to help others and a tendency to make charitable donations. Without the organizational membership, there was no connection between attitude and action.

The results are a little tricky to interpret, partly because the data’s all from a single point in time. That makes it hard to disentangle cause and effect. Do people give to charity because they belong to a church, or are the same people inclined to do both things? But Sokolowski points out that other research has found that interpersonal ties and group membership lead to both altruistic attitudes and philanthropic behavior.

None of this means that taking a job in finance and donating gobs of money to charity is a bad idea. But it does suggest that, for most people, getting involved in the group that runs the soup kitchen may be a more likely route to philanthropy.


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Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, Vol. 7, No. 3 (September 1996), pp. 259-278