The Psychology Behind Our Disaster Giving

New research reveals why people do—and don’t—give after disasters.

Posted Dec 02, 2019

In 2017 and 2018, storms like Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, as well as the California wildfires, caused damage and created need far beyond what government response could meet. Donors reacted in kind, giving to various organizations committed to relief and recovery efforts. The U.S Household Disaster Giving in 2017 and 2018 report—a new study from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, Candid, and the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy—looks at the trends surrounding household disaster household giving through data collected from that disaster season, which saw over 30 disasters causing over $1 billion in damage.

Una Osili, used with permission
Source: Una Osili, used with permission

I had the opportunity to talk to Una Osili, Ph.D., associate dean for research and international programs at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, and in that conversation (excerpted below), she shared what the findings of this study revealed about why people give after disasters, what keeps them from giving, and how this information can help individual donors—and the organizations looking to reach them—thoughtfully consider how to approach giving to future disaster relief efforts.

JA: What did you see as some of the major trends your research revealed in disaster-related giving?

UO: One of the questions that motivated the research is that we did not have as much information about how households were responding, or have responded, to disaster in both 2017 and 2018. The goal of the project was really to provide in-depth information. In particular, we were able to learn about the percentage of households that gave to disasters and their motivations for giving.

Embedded in all that new information is quite a bit of a call to action for organizations that are working in disasters to better understand how they can engage donors, especially over the long-term. A lot of households who didn't donate cited not being asked as the reason. So it’s really a question of how do disaster-serving organizations both engage donors over the long term, but also determine who they're reaching, and who they're missing?

The other big insight is that a lot of the giving, and interest in giving, tends to be right in the aftermath of a disaster, usually the first six weeks. We don't see that long-term continuous support, and that's primarily because the attention goes away. But this is also an opportunity, and a bit of a challenge for organizations, because even when the media attention fades, the organizations are still working.

JA: You talked some about what motivates people to give, such as the media, or even proximity. But I'm wondering, are there any other types of motivators, or maybe even psychological motivations behind people's giving that you could see?

UO: In this study, we unpacked the different reasons and motivations for giving. And there were some that you could group together: normal things that influence disaster giving, like how much media coverage you get, how many people are affected, what is the donor's connection. But then there are the interpersonal ties: relationship with someone directly impacted by the disaster, and relationship with a recipient organization.

Something that we didn't know much about but found out through the study is that the majority of households who give are not cannibalizing their other giving, they're giving additives to their overall charitable budget.

We did find that households that give to disasters tend to have higher income, more education, and seems to be fairly split in terms of demographic characteristics.

JA: Were there any psychological barriers that you found that might keep people from disaster-related giving?

UO: The biggest barriers were that they already had other commitments and that they weren't directly asked. This is what we really want to flag for organizations. But then if you dig into the data, you'll see that there are also concerns about effectiveness: whether the disaster-related gift could actually have an impact, and whether the organization is using the gift wisely. So there are issues around accountability and transparency, and even trying to figure out how to give, which organizations to support.

Some donors also felt that it was an interesting relationship between government assistance and private donors. And if people feel like the government is doing a reasonably good job handling it, there may be less of a motivation to donate, which certainly could affect the overall participation.

JA: I've also seen a lot of conversation happening around how donors make the decision: ‘Do I give to one primary cause, one primary organization, or do I take more of a scattered approach?’ Any advice that you would give to individual households about how to think about giving responsibly?

UO: Increasingly we're seeing more of these disasters, not fewer, so donors may want to think about their strategy around disasters. Perhaps it means setting aside a budget that could be used to support those in need and then thinking about the kinds of causes and organizations that you'll support. For example, a donor that is very interested in animal welfare, which we saw a lot of in Hurricane Harvey, could say, "I'm going to support the environment and animals, but I'm also going to set aside a dollar amount in case there is a disaster, and I'll have those dollars available."

In addition, donors can consider not just giving that one-time gift, but potentially continuing to support that organization, because what we have found is that communities will face challenges for years after the disaster. So for those donors, I think organizations can communicate that they would welcome your support during this time, but also consider making a longer-term commitment to this cause. Donors can be educated about what a strategy might look like if they want to engage beyond the disaster. And in some cases a time commitment in volunteering, that might not be a one-time thing. It could be something that could be sustained over time, and this could be especially important for a religious organization, where perhaps having more of a longer-term commitment could actually be really helpful in communities as far as rebuilding.

JA: Is there anything that surprised you in this data, or that you weren't fully expecting?

UO: If you look at why people aren't giving, one of the top reasons is that nobody asked them. And so for organizations in disaster relief, it's saying, we have work to do in terms of engaging more households, then thinking about how we reach them in building this community around supporting families that are impacted.

JA: As you reflect on your data, what do you see as the biggest takeaway that you hope household donors would really take from this study that you've done?

UO: The biggest finding for me is something that is a concern as well. We do have quite a bit of responsiveness to disasters, and this is fantastic news in terms of generosity of Americans, but we also have an opportunity to engage more Americans so they don't just give in the moment of disaster but also engage in longer-term rebuilding. I think that's the part where we have some work to do.