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“Want” Versus “Should” Desires: Why Some Giving Is Only Skin-Deep

"Want” Versus “Should” Desires: Why Some Giving Is Only Skin-Deep

Cynthia Cryder

shallow giving

Scholars and practitioners alike have grappled with the puzzle of why highly important charitable campaigns remain underfunded while other, less desperate campaigns receive an outpouring of support. An article from the Journal of Marketing Research​ uncovers one reason why donors often overlook the world’s neediest recipients: people are often drawn to beautiful and pleasing recipients instead.

In this research, the authors find that charity donors explicitly endorse recipient neediness as a top donation priority; however, they also find that donors often choose beautiful, less needy recipients instead of the neediest recipients. This duality seems to exist because donors simultaneously hold a “want,” or emotion-based preference, to give to beautiful recipients as well as a “should,” or cognitive-based preference, to give to needy recipients. The preference for beautiful recipients is most likely to emerge when decisions are simple and intuitive (which describes many decisions that people make), but the preference for needy recipients can also emerge when donors’ giving decisions are thorough and deliberate.


What Does This Mean for Marketers?

When donors decide intuitively, charities may benefit by using beautiful photos, whereas when donors decide deliberatively, charities may benefit by emphasizing recipient neediness instead. Intuitive information processing is often considered to be people’s default decision mode. These patterns suggest that charities might be best off using beautiful photos as a default unless they believe their donors will be particularly deliberative when choosing (for example, such as when making careful end-of-year donation allocations).

But multiple other “want” charity preferences likely exist in addition to the preference for beautiful recipients. For example, donors may have “want” preferences to give to high-status causes such as prestigious universities or art museums, or personally relevant causes such as charities that have benefited friends or family. It is important that nonprofit marketers and researchers develop a better understanding of donors’ desires to give to what feels good versus what feels optimal, as well as the contextual factors that favor one set of preferences over the other.

Article Citation

Cynthia Cryder, Simona Botti, and Yvetta Simonyan (2017), “The Charity Beauty Premium: Satisfying Donors’ ‘Want’ Versus ‘Should’ Desires,” Journal of Marketing Research, 54 (4), 605–18.​

Cynthia Cryder is Associate Professor of Marketing, Olin Business School, Washington University in St. Louis.