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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Giving: Everyone's Doing It

I'm back at my research for a book on the positive psychology of stewardship. Whenever possible, givers should be equipped with ways to accurately understand their personal context. When our folks tell themselves stories about why they give what they do, those stories work best when they are built on real information. 

For example, many researchers refer to a study done in 1996 by Stephen Coleman for the Minnesota Department of Revenue. The report of that study is available at this site. It might take a few seconds for the report to come up.

In that study, four methods were compared for their impact on improving tax payer compliance and tax revenues. Some subjects were reminded of heightened audit threats. Some subjects were promised and given greater levels of customer service by the department. Some were encouraged to use a new, simpler and clearer basic tax return form. None of these methods had any cost-effective impact on tax payer compliance and increased revenues for the state.

The fourth test method provided information to the subjects. One letter reminded tax payers of how much good their dollars were doing and how people would suffer if they fudged on their tax returns. That letter had no effect on tax payer behavior. The other letter reminded tax payers that ninety-three percent of their neighbors regularly completed accurate tax returns and paid the required amount of tax. This countered widely held perceptions that many people cheated on their taxes. The research described this method as the most cost effective and least objectionable intervention by far. Simply providing tax payers with accurate information about the behavior of their neighbors was enough to improve their own tax paying behavior.

Information about the giving (or paying) context is what Thaler and Sunstein describe as a “social nudge” (Nudge, page 66).  We are affected by our community context when we make our tax-paying (and giving) decisions. So context-based information is likely to have a positive impact on giving behavior. 

More than that, a positive message about the behavior of others will have a far greater impact than a negative message. Most churches send contribution reports to members. Often those reports are nothing more than a machine-generated summary of the member’s giving in the previous quarter. That is a missed opportunity. First, the report should be accompanied by a letter of thanks. Our members could certainly give to other causes that are important to them. No gift should ever be received without grateful acknowledgment. And such gratitude will make future gifts more likely.

Second, these contribution reports should include some mention of how many households in the congregation gave in that previous quarter. We should imitate the Minnesota tax folks and remind people how “normal” it is to give to our congregation’s ministry. Too often we provide information about budget shortfalls and tight financial situations. So we create the perception that people are not giving. We make that the most available piece of information for our folks. And that availability will lead people to give less. After all they don’t want to be the exceptional suckers who are footing the bill for everyone else.

Third, these contribution reports should include information about how much people have given in the last quarter. There is no reason that this information should be shared with members only once a year (if at all). That information might include a “giving level pyramid” that demonstrates how many households in a congregation give within certain ranges during that quarter. Of course, many of us will assume that everyone else is richer than we are. Therefore they can all give more. So if possible, try to put those giving ranges into a household income context as well. That information may be based on demographic reports for the area. Again, many of us will assume that everyone else is richer than we are. But these reports make that assumption harder to sustain.

Many people in our congregations give regularly. That's good news that should be shared!