Attractive fundraisers and alpha male donors spur bidding wars on online charity sites

It turns out, men lock horns on online charity sites as well. Mountain goats via www.shutterstock.com

In marathons this week in Boston and London, elite runners will engage in a fierce competition to win the men’s and women’s titles as they zip across each city.

But another, more primitive competition of sorts will already have taken place on charity runners’ fundraising pages: a battle among men to prove they have the most generous hearts in order to win the amorous attention of a beautiful woman asking for money.

In a biological sense, men on these sites are doing what happens in the animal kingdom all the time. They are competing with other males to show off to an attractive female.

Online fundraising: a social experiment

Each year, runners and others raise hundreds of millions of dollars and pounds in sponsorship donations, mostly through online fundraising pages that make it easier for them to solicit money. These pages also serve as a public platform for giving, listing all the donations that people have made, with lots of details such as names, amounts and personal messages.

Donors can see what other people have done and know that their giving is also visible to others. And since the fundraisers typically solicit donations from their friends, family and colleagues, these other donors are likely to be people that they know and interact with socially.

Some donors will want to fit in and follow the herd, while others will want to stand out from the crowd. Either way, other people’s donations set a benchmark and it will surprise few to learn that donors look to amounts given by other people in deciding how much they should give.

In previous work, we have shown that a large donation of £100 (US$150) or more, particularly when made early on, can have a sizable positive effect on how much later donors give, increasing subsequent donations by an average of £10. Small donations, on the other hand, have the opposite effect. If everyone has been donating about £30, then the first smaller donation of £10 reduces the average of subsequent amounts closer to £20.

One of our more surprising findings, however, was that large donations tended to elicit a a stronger competitive response from males when the person raising the money was an attractive woman. In biological terms, male donors appear to engage in “competitive helping.”

Competitive giving

In a paper published last week in Current Biology and funded by the Royal Society, we reported the findings of a new study of competitive helping behavior based on fundraising pages from the 2014 London Marathon. Since we focused on UK sites, all figures are in pounds.

We looked at how subsequent donors reacted to large donations and compared how the responses varied by donor gender and fundraiser gender and attractiveness. The fundraiser’s attractiveness was scored on the basis of external assessments of the fundraisers’ profile photos, and “attractive” was defined as the top 25% of scores.

We hoped to learn whether male donors increase their giving more in response to a large donation when there is an attractive female fundraiser. We also considered what happens when the person making the large donation is a man – let’s call him the alpha donor – to determine whether other male donors would increase their giving as a result.

The results were striking. We confirmed that large donations typically elicit a positive response among subsequent donors in terms of how much they give. But the increase in giving triggered by a large donation is four times greater among male donors when they are responding to a large donation given by another man and when there is an attractive female fundraiser (£38 more on average, compared with only a £10 increase for all donors).

This subconscious response by men could have an evolutionary function as theories predict that generous actions can honestly signal hidden qualities such as wealth or desirable personality attributes such as generosity to potential partners.

The result is even more striking when you think of some of the imperfections in the data that would tend to make it less likely that we would observe such an effect.

For example, we would expect this type of competition among males for attractive but unrelated females, but not necessarily from males who are related to the fundraiser (for example fathers and brothers). Since we didn’t know whether donors were related to the fundraiser, we couldn’t focus on this case and had to average over all donors.

The study involved a review of 2,561 fundraising pages from the 2014 London marathon, focusing on 668 that met the required criteria. Each needed to include an image of the fundraiser whose gender was identified and attractiveness verified independently. The pages also had to feature large donations from people who could be assigned a gender. A large donation was defined as double the mean donation on the page and at least £50. It was typically around £100.

Males compete, women don’t

It is hard to think of another explanation for this other than a biological mechanism: male donors compete, albeit possibly subconsciously, with other male donors for the attention of attractive females. By contrast, there is no such response among female donors. Of course, there may be other triggers that females respond to that were outside the scope of our study, but it seems as though it is only males who feel the urge to compete in generosity.

This makes sense in light of previous studies that have looked at what men and women prioritize in sexual partners: men tend to focus on signals of fertility, such as youth and waist-to-hip ratio, while women place higher emphasis on signals of status like wealth and generosity.

What are some the implications of this?

Good causes and the desire to do good are important for raising money, but it’s clearly more than just that and understanding some of the other triggers can help to increase donations.

Not everyone can be among the most attractive fundraisers, but it may still be worth choosing a good profile picture. And interestingly, other things seem to work well too. For example, a picture in which the fundraiser is smiling boosts donations by more than 10%.

More broadly, one takeaway is that alpha male competition can be about more than just who is the most macho, suggesting the potential to harness the desire to compete for the goal of doing good.

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