Monthly Archives: February 2018

What Oxfam cancellations tell us about donor motivation

What can we learn from the drop in donations to Oxfam after the child abuse news broke? In the UK, about 7,000 donors cancelled, in the Netherlands 1,700, and in Hong Kong 715.

First, the drop does not tell us much about what makes people give. Most donors have continued to give. The 7,000 who cancelled in the UK represent 3.5% of income in the UK. The 1,700 donors who cancelled in the Netherlands are 0.5% of all donors. This means that defaults save lives. The default is to do nothing and continue to give. We’re seeing a small fraction go.

But for those discontinuing their gifts protest, we could say that we can tell why they were giving in the first place by looking at their reactions.

If they gave to Oxfam for altruistic reasons, they will find other charities to give to. They may find it hard to trust Oxfam now, and other charities named in the media.

There is the ‘one bad apple spoils the entire basket’ idea that donors will find faults with other charities as well once one gets bad publicity.

We’ll have to see how much that idea is worth. In previous episodes in the Netherlands, bad publicity about one charity usually did not spill over to other charities. In the Netherlands and Hong Kong it seems altogether more puzzling why donors stopped giving, as the abuse – as far as we know – did not involve the Netherlands or Hong Kong branch.

In my view the cancellations are a result of empathic anger. The more you care about children, the more angry you will be. While empathy has been heralded as an important factor in altruism, it also has a non-altruistic side. The emotion of anger itself and the cancellation may be viewed and communicated as a sign of caring. But it is not effective helping.

There is also a role for public relations. It may be that the abuse corrected an image that charity workers are holy superhumans. A charity that ‘paints itself as whiter than white’ reinforces that image. In times of PR crises like these such an image boomerangs donors away. If donors reckon with the possibility that a charity may attract bad apples as workers, they realize that one bad apple is not evidence of a disease, but of lax quality control.


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