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Hungarian protesters hold glowing cellphones aloft at a 2017 protest against tough laws targeting foreign-backed nonprofit organizations and universities. STR/AFP via Getty Images

Donors grow more generous when they support nonprofits facing hostile environments abroad

The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The big idea

U.S. donors become more generous toward nonprofit organizations after learning that those groups are contending with hostile political situations in the foreign countries where they operate.

We determined this by conducting a survey with 500 people we connected with through Amazon MTurk, an online crowdsourced labor market.

The people we surveyed learned about the International Rescue Committee, a leading refugee resettlement agency, then responded to questions about whether and how much they would be willing to donate to it. Half read that the group works in countries that have recently passed laws that harshly restrict nonprofit organizations, while the others did not.

Hearing about the group’s travails didn’t affect how many would be willing to donate. Roughly half of both groups said they would donate.

Seeing this information, however, did make likely donors more generous. Those who’d seen it said they would be willing to donate 26% more than people who hadn’t reviewed it. Many explicitly connected their additional support to the International Rescue Committee’s legal troubles. As one person who took part in our study explained, the organization is “doing good work in countries where it is tough for groups like them and they need all the help they can get.”

Participants became even more generous when they read that the organization both faced trouble abroad and was mostly funded by private donations. They were willing to donate 32% more to the organization. We think this probably happened because those donors felt that their support could make a difference.

As we explained in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, this difference suggests that people who donate to human rights and refugee groups realize that these organizations need more funding when foreign governments restrict their work.

Why it matters

Many countries, including Hungary and Brazil, are using violence and legal measures to control, intimidate and shut down independent organizations, including foreign ones. Groups that focus on human rights, elections, corruption and media freedom – issues that challenge state authority – are especially targeted.

Amnesty International pulled out of India in the fall of 2020 after publishing reports highly critical of the government’s human rights record. The Indian government’s reprisals, Amnesty says, made fundraising and operating there nearly impossible. Following the enactment of a new law tightening rules on foreign-funded nonprofit groups, the government froze Amnesty’s accounts without notice. Indian officials have also targeted other outspoken nonprofit organizations.

Thousands of other charities face similar restrictions, now increasingly widespread, around the world.

In 2015, Russia expelled George Soros’ Open Society Foundations after passing laws that restricted nongovernmental organizations. Three years later, Hungary passed similar legislation and then also forced out Open Society Foundations, along with many other organizations. Since 2016, China has clamped down on thousands of foreign groups operating there.

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In response, North American and Western European governments have reduced aid to repressive countries. India is a prime example: In response to its increasingly restrictive laws, foreign governments, foundations and donors have reduced their funding for nonprofit operations there by 40% since 2014. In Russia, nongovernmental organizations have been defunded and forced to relocate to other countries.

These repressive measures appear to be working and limiting the influence of independent groups. Without consistent funding from abroad, many of them have subsequently shut down, reducing their ability to influence policy and hold governments accountable.

Our findings suggest that telling donors about crackdowns by foreign governments can potentially boost support.

What’s next

We would like to follow up by analyzing whether donors in other countries, particularly in the European Union, would respond similarly to this kind of appeal.

We are also looking into what kinds of people are more likely to support besieged charities operating in foreign countries by assessing how someone’s life experiences and trust in political and charitable institutions might influence their willingness to support global causes.

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