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Why did it take a fire to raise the funds? Charitable giving in the aftermath of the Notre Dame fire

This post discusses how “warm glow” charitable giving may explain the outpouring of donations to rebuild Notre Dame Cathedral in the wake of the fire


The fire that devastated the Notre Dame cathedral this week generated an outpouring of donations. Yet fundraising efforts for the upkeep of the cathedral had been underway for years prior to the disaster, with limited success. The cathedral now has the funding it desperately needed to undergo renovations, but some of the parts of the cathedral needing renovating are now gone. Faced with this paradox, we must ask ourselves, why did it take a fire to raise the funds?

People generally think of donating to charity as a selfless altruistic act: we donate because we believe in a cause, and we are happy when charities meet fundraising goals. It is clear that the Notre Dame cathedral is an important and historic cultural landmark, and we should give money to make sure that it is preserved. But this belief in the importance of preserving culture cannot explain the pattern in giving observed here – the difficulty in getting money to reconstruct and renovate, and the outpouring of gifts following the fire. This pattern is typical of natural disasters, after which donations often exceed fundraising goals.

A more likely explanation is that people give selflessly, but they also give because it makes them feel good to do so. In behavioral economics, we call this “warm glow” giving, and it is not entirely selfless. Warm glow givers get a private benefit (a “warm glow”!) when they themselves are the ones who give. The theory of warm glow giving also predicts that people may give more when they see others giving as in the case of the Notre Dame fire, since joining in a cause increases the private benefits from giving.

Hence, the outpouring of donations following the Notre Dame fire is likely to be explained by the theory of warm glow. A variety of factors go into affecting the way that people experience warm glow, and disasters are a case where we can observe many of these factors.

First, research shows that we give when we are asked. Charities who decrease the frequency of asks will almost certainly see a decrease in the number of donations they receive. News reports are a type of “ask” at the largest possible scale. When asked, people will often give to avoid feeling guilt (or getting some negative warm glow – in a seminal paper, Jim Andreoni (UCSD) refers to this as “cold prickle”!) from not giving. This also explains why donations for disasters typically peak during the time that news reports are at their peak, and slow down once the disaster is no longer in the news.

Second, research shows that people don’t like to give to “overhead” costs and prefer to give directly to a cause. Giving toward the reconstruction or upkeep of the Notre Dame cathedral can be thought of as giving toward “overhead,” and is not nearly as appealing as giving towards a rebuilding effort. A rebuilding effort is easy to understand and to identify with, and giving to such an effort results in higher warm glow than giving to overhead.

Third, people are social beings, and joining in with others to give has particular warm glow benefits. When we give to a cause, such as to restore a UNESCO world heritage site like Notre Dame, we feel that we are part of a larger community. Social media plays a role too, as sharing and re-sharing that we gave during a time such as this can help people feel a sense of connection to the cause.

Finally, the Notre Dame fire resulted in immediate large gifts from influential firms and private donors worldwide. When donors are uncertain about where to give, seeing early large donations publicized can increase their certainty in the importance of the cause and encourage further donations. This can create a “snowball effect” as donations beget even more donations.

This is not to say that we should set our patrimony on fire so we can raise more funds. We can learn from these patterns of giving to develop fundraising appeals that target “warm glow” and make the charity more appealing, such as involving frequent asks, making a clear connection from the gift to the cause it serves (rather than only to overhead), seeking out leadership gifts from firms and big donors, and giving ample opportunities to share donations on social media. At the Science of Philanthropy Initiative (SPI), my colleagues and I work to partner with charities to bring science to practice and rigorously test these different approaches to fundraising.

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