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Here’s a little research that helps shine a light on why it’s predominantly older people that give money to charity – particularly through direct mail.

It makes them feel good!

Wow. What a shock! I heard your chin hit the floor.

But what’s interesting is just why it makes them feel good.

This study by Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick of Ohio State University and Matthias Hastall of Zeppelin University, Friedrichshafen looked at media use amongst older adults (50 to 65 years old) and younger ones (18 to 30 years old).

The experiment showed that people use media to enhance their social identity. Older and younger people have different goals when they interact with media, and it shows in what they choose to read.

In this case, participants were asked to review an online magazine. Each magazine contained carefully constructed stories, but the emphasis was changed depending on the version of the magazine they received – one had a positive spin. The other contained a negative one.

For example, one positive article was headlined…

“Visitation rights gained after daring protest – Demonstration at 100 feet high a success.”

The negative version had the headline…

“Visitation rights denied despite daring protest – Demonstration at 100 feet high in vain.”

The stories were illustrated with a photograph of the person involved. Half were younger and half were older.

Each magazine had a random mix of stories and people, clearly differentiated by age. Participants were asked to read the magazines and indicate which stories they preferred.

Knoblich-Westerwick described what they found…

“Results showed that the older participants were more likely to select negative articles about younger people, but they did not show a strong preference for either positive or negative stories about people in their own age group.

“Younger people showed low interest in articles about older individuals – regardless of whether the stories were positive or negative. They did choose to read more positive stories about their own age group than they did negative stories.

“After participants finished browsing and evaluating the online magazine, they were given a short questionnaire aimed at measuring their self-esteem.

“Results showed that younger people showed no differences in self-esteem based on what they had read. However, the more that older people read negative stories about younger individuals, the higher the older people’s levels of self-esteem tended to be.”

According to Knobloch-Westerwick, older people’s preference for negative news about their younger counterparts can be explained by their place in society…

“Younger people, who are less certain about their own
identity, prefer to read about other young people to see how they live
their lives.

“Older people, on the other hand, have greater
certainty regarding their identity. However, living in a youth centred
culture, they may appreciate a boost in self-esteem. That’s why they
prefer the negative stories about younger people, who are seen as having
a higher status in our society.”

And it’s this need for self-esteem that fundraisers need to take into account.

By giving to charity, older people directly confront their media stereotype. Though they can be portrayed as wise, they are often shown as slow, forgetful and even a burden.

Through their relationship with charity, they can demonstrate their kindness and their usefulness.

In doing so, they enhance their social identity and enjoy an increase in self-esteem.

It helps explain why charity communications which focus on showing the donor what they have done, always beat those that talk about what the organisation has achieved – they are far more effective at answering thedonors’ need for esteem.

Thanks to the fabulous @daria for the heads up on the research.

Photo credit: Creative tools