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When a Charity is Too Familiar: Lessons from Charity Psychology

There are at least two goals in the world of charity that impact charity psychology: providing aid and raising awareness.

On the one hand, there are organizations like food banks, whose core mission is to raise money and collect food products so that they can serve members of their communities who need help finding enough to eat. On the other hand, there are organizations like, for whom a large portion of their efforts are aimed at raising awareness of the poverty in the world.

Although it might be the case that raising money is just as easy (or difficult) for either type of charity, some psychologists have asked whether this distinction between “providing aid” and “raising awareness” can change the factors that lead to donations.

Is Familiarity Good or Bad?

It seems like a no-brainer that a charity would want to promote itself so that more people know about it. Wouldn’t you prefer to give to a charity you’ve heard about rather than a charity that’s new to you?

In general, it’s true that people help more when the beneficiary is more familiar to them. After all, if your coworker and a stranger both asked you a small favor, you’re probably more likely to say yes to your coworker. As I’ve covered before, some research shows that just sitting quietly in the same room as someone increases the odds that you’ll do them a favor.

But it turns out that familiarity can backfire, and it all depends on what you think the familiarity means. Past research by Norbert Schwarz and his colleagues has shown that familiarity can mean several things. For example, when you can easily recognize someone or something, then you might infer that it’s important to you. But you could also infer that it’s just something you’ve heard or seen a million times before–it’s old news.

When it comes to charity, those two meanings can make a big difference.

When a Charity is Familiar

money-652560_640bImagine someone mentions the charity Doctors Without Borders, and it’s immediately familiar—you start to think of everything you know about the organization. This might signal to you: “this charity must be important to me if it comes to mind so quickly!” But the same experience might signal to you: “this charity must already be really popular if it comes to mind so quickly!” Those two thoughts can mean the difference between donating or not.

In a series of studies, psychologists tested whether people make these different judgments when a charity seems familiar. Importantly, the key variable was whether the charity’s goal was giving aid vs. raising awareness.

When a charity’s goal is to help people, donations go up when the charity seems familiar. This is probably because the familiarity signals the importance of the charity.

However, when a charity’s goal is to raise awareness of a cause, donations go down when the charity seems familiar. This time, the feeling of familiarity probably signals that the cause has already gotten enough exposure, which leads people to think that the charity doesn’t really need those donations anymore.

So What Does Charity Psychology Say About Promoting an Organization?

These results can be confusing if you’re in charge of running an organization. Should you work hard to promote your charity and make it more familiar to people? Well, it depends on your charity’s goals.

If your primary goal is to help people in need, then making your charity more familiar can be a big benefit, but if your goal is to raise awareness of some cause, that familiarity might backfire.

Another way to look at this is to emphasize different goals for different audiences. When you’re targeting people who are already familiar with your organization, emphasize your charity’s goals to give aid. When you’re targeting people who are not familiar with your organization, however, emphasize your charity’s goals to raise awareness of a cause.

In general, though, this research reveals a new layer of metacognition, which is the judgments we make about our own thoughts. In this case, “the meaning of familiarity” is a type of metacognition, which clearly has important outcomes. This is a thread that runs through all kinds of psychology, and this research shows just one way in which it can have important implications for real-world issues.

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