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3 factors that make donors give to charity

Americans were more generous in 2013 than they were in 2012, and charitable giving is only expected to increase, according to the Giving USA report released in June. So what is it that makes donors want to pull out their wallets? Here's a few factors research has shown to impact people's hearts and checkbooks.

1. A sense of belonging

In one study out of Texas A&M University, researchers divided prospective donors into two groups — a control and an experimental group. The difference was that those in the control group could donate to a general college fund, while those in the experimental group could donate to a specific university. Both chose to donate, but those in the experimental group gave much more.

That's why an economist at Yale, Robert Shiller, has proposed "participation nonprofit" organizations — in which instead of making a donation, donors buy a share of the organization. "The share sales would really be donations, but would be framed differently and come with rights that would change the whole giving experience," Shiller writes in The New York Times.

"Shareholders could vote their shares at stockholder meetings, as they would in a traditional corporation. The organization would pay some kind of dividend, too, though this would go into a restricted account, to be used only for a charitable purpose of the owner’s choosing," he writes.

2. Charity and empathy

Prospective donors like to feel their money will benefit people who really need it. Forbes reports on a study of 600 people and four charitable scenarios. In one study, "participants were asked to choose 'between donating to medical patients described alternately as having a low level of responsibility for their situations and those having a high level of responsibility.' Recipients of donations in the group were described either as unable to pay for medical treatment because of 'low-wage jobs with poor benefits due to economic conditions' or unable to pay for treatment because of inability 'to hold a steady job due to their drug and alcohol abuse or gambling addiction' — in shorter terms, not their fault and their fault.

The results? "The 'worthiness' of the recipients of charity seems to matter," Forbes reports. The study found that charitably giving is sometimes conditional upon the responsibility of the recipient. In other words, organizations "need to be cautious when describing the beneficiaries that they support, particularly if the recipient could be perceived as responsible for their plight and, by extension, undeserving," the report says.

3. Knowing a good story

That's why storytelling is key. Even though some call it a cliché, storytelling has proven to be a powerful motivation for donors. A study by the Rockefeller Foundation recently found that in storytelling, "The closer to the ground you get, the better," and "It's not to say that the community tells the story best, but I believe strongly that the stories should be coming from as close as possible to the people who are being impacted by your programs," one nonprofit leader told Forbes writer Tom Watson.

amcdonald@deseretnews.com, Twitter | @amymcdonald89