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Whether you are being asked to contribute to a foreign country’s tsunami relief fund or to your alma mater across the country, being physically distant from the cause might deter you from actually donating.

“Too Far to Help: The Effect of Perceived Distance on the Expected Impact and Likelihood of Charitable Action,” a new study from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business to be published in the forthcoming Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that people are more willing to help charitable causes close to home because they think their donation will have a stronger impact than if given to a faraway cause.

“People metaphorically apply their knowledge about physical impact to charitable actions,” said Chicago Booth Professor Ayelet Fishbach, who conducted the study with Maferima Touré-Tillery of Northwestern University. “Real and perceived spatial distance negatively influence the expected impact, and hence the likelihood of charitable action.”

Fishbach and Touré-Tillery conducted six studies and supplemented their experi-ments with secondary data from university fundraising campaigns to illustrate what they refer to as the “closeness-equals-strength-of-effect metaphor.” In other words, their studies consistently showed that people metaphorically link impact in the charitable domain to distance in the physical domain.

“Donations increase as real or perceived distances decrease,” Fishbach said. “The expectation of making an impact can stem not only from features of a charitable appeal…but also from the perceived spatial distance between donors and recipients.”

For example, if you are a University of Chicago alumnus living in a Chicago suburb, you may be more likely to donate to the university’s annual giving campaign than would your alumnus friend living in California. Even though the alumni are connected to the university in a similar way, living in close proximity to the cause makes you more likely to donate.

Likewise, if you are considering a donation to a tsunami relief fund in an underdeveloped country, despite wanting to help, you might decide that your money would have a stronger impact locally. Therefore, you might instead make a donation to a nearby homeless shelter, another worthwhile cause that would tangibly benefit your local community.

Fishbach and Touré-Tillery’s findings could help charities reexamine how and which audiences they are targeting for donations. The researchers argue that while charitable organizations spend much of their time convincing potential donors that their generosity will have a real impact, perhaps they can focus more on the issue of distance.

“By shrinking distance, charitable appeals can expand donors’ expectations that their actions will have an impact, and thus increase the likelihood of charitable contributions,” said Fishbach.

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Marielle Sainvilus
Director of Public Relations and Communications
Phone: 773.531.2894

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