The ‘US’ and ‘THEM’ in charitable giving

By Ruth Lamont (@RuthALamont)

The issue of how we can encourage charitable giving has many dimensions to it, with individuals often being motivated by life-events, ideological beliefs and current circumstance. Here I want to talk about just one aspect: the group dynamics of charitable giving. By this I mean the implications of how we see ourselves in relation to the ‘in-need’ group and how this broadly impacts upon charitable giving and attitudes towards the in-need group.

Human rights and equality are central to the ethos of modern society (or try to be), and so we may wish to view ourselves as just ‘another human-being’, whether white or black, male or female, educated or not. But on a day-to-day basis different aspects of our social identity will be highlighted. We may think about the fact that we are, a working-mum, Asian, an atheist, British, a member of a reputable University and so on. Belonging to these groups often helps us to feel positive about ourselves and our identity. Identifying with these smaller groups can provide us with an identity that is distinct from the masses, yet reassures us that we belong to something that is valuable (see Social Identity Theory; e.g. Tajfel & Turner, 1979; for summary see Hogg, Abrams, Otten & Hinkle, 2004). However, these group distinctions, and creation of an ‘us’ and ‘them’, also allow for favouritism towards in-group members, and stereotyping and discriminatory treatment of out-group members (e.g. Tajfel, 1982).

In terms of in-group favouritism in charitable giving, we may often give to charities that we feel part of. This may be because a family member has gone through a similar evil to those that the charity supports or because we ourselves have. However, we often give to charities that support people who are not likely to be seen as the in-group? This may be people across the other side of the world or in a situation that we cannot identify with. This would go against the principal of in-group favouritism. There are two plausible ways in which this beneficial giving to the out-group, as opposed to always giving to groups you feel close to, may be reinforced at an intergroup level…

Reinforcement 1 – what ‘us’ and ‘them’?

It has been shown that encouraging people to see both the in-group and out-group as part of an overarching superordinate group promotes more positive action towards the out-group (e.g. Kramer & Brewer, 1984). It is also clear that charitable giving is reinforced by the belief that we are all human and so no one of us should be treated as anything less. We all deserve to be treated with compassion, dignity and have positive and equal opportunities in life (the Human Rights Act 1998 says it better than I can!). Humanity is our superordinate identity. But does charitable giving always occur via this premise?

Reinforcement 2 – positive moral identity

Charitable giving creates its own group distinctions. There is an ‘US’—meaning the largely financially comfortable group of people that are likely to be in a position to give—and ‘THEM’—the many people that are represented by charitable organisations—mentality in charitable giving.

Social Identity Theory also states that we aim to positively distinguish ourselves from other groups of people. These positive distinctions can be formed along minimal lines, as with the ‘us’ and ‘them’ in charitable giving (Hogg et al., 2004).

In a society where equality is rightly hailed, could it be that charitable giving (an act of equality promotion) reinforces the positive distinctiveness of charitable givers through a moral identity (Reynolds & Ceranic, 2007)? Charitable giving can often be a very visible and collective act, as with sponsored events, charity work abroad and celebrity appeals. In supporting these in-need groups, people may be reinforcing the positive moral identity of the giving group and unwittingly reassuring themselves that they are not part of the in-need group, and do not share the same vulnerabilities e.g. the disabled, the unwell, the poor, may all represent threats of what ‘life could be like’.

This is a less positive take on human kindness, but should be considered as one motivation for charitable giving.

Charitable giving and attitudes towards the in-need group

Dr Hannah Swift looked at the portrayal of older adults in two charities supporting the elderly. Images used by charity one were more likely to show vibrant and active older adults, whereas charity two more often used images of vulnerable and dependent older adults. It was charity two who was found to have higher yearly donations from individual givers. To explain this observation, individuals evaluated the images from the charities and were asked which charity they would donate to. The older people represented by charity two were evaluated more negatively, as less capable and friendly, and were viewed with more pity. This was the charity that 82% of the people chose to donate a hypothetical £5 to.

It is undeniably important to point out the vulnerabilities and needs of in-need groups, but bombardment with such images presents a risk that viewers will dehumanize and label the in-need as distinct from them. Although this may be more productive in terms of promoting charitable giving than promoting common humanity, it may negatively affect intergroup relations and attitudes towards the in-need group. This is particularly an issue when the in-need group is one with close proximity e.g. the homeless, those who have a physical or mental disability or as mentioned before, older adults.  

Likewise, Oxfam has recently campaigned to rid Africa of its image of hopeless ‘poverty’. Oxfam is in the top ten for British earning charities showing the effectiveness of their campaigns. However, this poverty image may encourage individuals to view themselves as very different from those in Africa.

Do charitable organisations need to focus more on our common humanity rather than the ‘other-worldly’ suffering of those they support? Could this avoid the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality in charitable giving while still promoting giving beyond our in-group?


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3 Responses to The ‘US’ and ‘THEM’ in charitable giving

  1. Elaine Alden says:

    Hi grouplab! You may want to check out a project I worked on with Dr. Beth Breeze – “How donors choose charities: findings of a study of donor perceptions of the nature and distribution of charitable benefit”…Beth had printed copies made, so may have one to send over to you – she is based over at SSPSSR at the Centre for Philanthropy and Social Justice.
    Dr. E Alden

    • grouplab says:

      Great – thank you for the reference. This is a new area of interest for me (Ruth), so if you have any more ideas it would be great to hear from you. Thanks for reading!

  2. Ruth Lamont says:

    Here is the link to Dr Beth Breeze’s paper for others who would like to read it…
    It is an interesting report on people’s decision processes when choosing which cause to give to. Identification is a key feature of this.

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