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Liberal, Conservative, or Charitable

Liberal, Conservative, or Charitable: Politics Underpins How We Give

• August 10, 2012 • 8:54 AM

It’s not just super PACs—politics dictate how we donate to everyday charities, too.

To all the battles, big and small, between Democrats and Republicans, add this one: Who gives more to charity?

Arthur Brooks, president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, tried to tackle the question several years ago in his book Who Really Cares: America’s Charity Divide and concluded that the answer was Republicans—a finding which, depending on how you feel about AEI, is either obvious or dubious.

Brooks’ thesis, bandied about the blogosphere and the op-ed pages of New York’s respective partisan rags, the Times and the Journal, was essentially this: while liberal households make, on average, more money than conservative ones, they’re more stingy in their giving. A Republican family might donate $1,600 in a typical year; a Democratic one just $1,200. Not only that, Brooks argued, but the right was better about giving blood and making time for volunteer work than the left. Critics protested that the disparity in dollars donated had largely to do with religion—no one hits you up for money so often as a pastor, and nothing puts the squeeze on like an offering plate being handed down the pew—and, after removing churches from the equation, they re-crunched the numbers to produce a more favorable result.

A forthcoming study from the International Journal of Research in Marketing demonstrates that who gives is less interesting a question than why they give. The answer has much to do with the “moral foundations” that underpin our personal politics.

Through a series of three experiments, researchers from Pennsylvania State University, the University of Texas at San Antonio, and Rice University showed that just changing a few words in a charity’s mission statement had an impact on whether liberals or conservatives were more likely to make a donation. By calling on touchstone values like “equality” (for Democrats) and “tradition” (for Republicans), the authors were able to re-frame a single non-profit to suit either side of the aisle.

Market researchers like to break consumers down according to our “moral foundations,” the psychological shortcuts we use to decide, on the fly, if an idea agrees with our values or profanes them. Americans who self-identify as liberal and vote Democrat tend to focus on questions of fairness, reciprocity, and protection from harm; the vulnerable are to be cared for, the voiceless represented. (“Free Mumia! Build schools, not jails!”) Conservatives, meanwhile, from Tea Partiers to hedge fund tycoons, latch onto issues of loyalty, respect for authority, and religious purity; the social order is to be upheld and carnal desires resisted. (“These colors don’t run! It’s a child, not a choice!”)

It’s not that patriotism is a foreign concept in blue states, or social justice in red ones. Rather, liberals find “equality” to be of greater moral relevance when it comes to making a decision—like which charity to write a check to—than “tradition.” Conservatives feel precisely the opposite, thanks very much.

Karen Winterich and her coauthors drew on these shortcuts to study how Americans responded to a subtly suggestive charitable appeal. One experiment, conducted on a sample of students, highlighted a real charity (Save the Children) with a universal cause (rescuing kids from poverty) and massaged just a single detail about non-profit: its management structure. Half the students read about a government organization that staged interventions using public dollars; the other half read about a private organization that did identical work but relied on grants and donations. All the students were also given a “conservatism score,” based on their political beliefs, as well as a “moral identity” score, which rated how central their values were to decision making—a high scorer was highly sensitive to acting in accordance with her values, while a low scorer was indifferent.

The researchers hypothesized that liberal students would be more likely to give money to the public agency, while conservative students would throw their weight behind the private enterprise—which is precisely what happened. When told that they had $100 at their disposal, the students’ donations skewed as predicted. Notably, it was students with high moral identities—those who cared deeply about “walking the walk”—who rallied hard for their preferred management structure (e.g. public) or shortchanged the other (e.g. private).

A second trial concerned the charity Rebuilding Together, which performs home repairs in urban areas. When the non-profit was said to support “low income families” and protect “the right to a home,” liberals were quicker to open their wallets. But when its mission was tweaked to serve “working families” who hoped to “follow American traditions and support their communities,” it was conservatives who showed the deeper pockets.

Writ large, the politics of giving amount to more than just pennies. Charitable donations in the United States reached $298 billion last year—$218 billion of that from individuals, the rest from corporations and foundations—and development officers are forever scrambling to get a bigger slice of the action. Winterich and her colleagues note that in 2010 Target, the big box retailer, ran into a maelstrom of criticism when it made a $150,000 corporate donation to Minnesota Forward, a PAC supporting a conservative gubernatorial candidate who opposed gay marriage. Customers, like donors, have legs, and they’ll happily use them to do their shopping elsewhere.

“Future research should examine how large organizations like Target can simultaneously cater to many segments with diverse political identities,” the authors write. That’s sound marketing advice, which is to say it’s slippery and utterly lacking cojones. Indeed, why oughtn’t every non-profit simply draft two mission statements, one to court Republicans and the other to woo Democrats? It’s “Politics and the English Language” meets “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

As to that first question—whether its god loving, gun-toting conservatives or bleeding-heart, socialist-minded liberals who are the more benevolent souls—Winterich et al. quietly tucked their finding into a footnote. In the trial where students were told they had $100 to donate to Save the Children, it was Democrats who gave more than their Republican classmates.

How much more? Eight cents.

Kevin Charles Redmon
Kevin Charles Redmon is a journalist and critic. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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