Fundraising professionals might think they understand the world of charitable giving. And then the Ice Bucket Challenge comes out of nowhere.

Opening the Science of Philanthropy Initiative‘s second annual conference, principal investigator John List explained that researchers working with his team can offer explanations of the underlying incentives driving the viral phenomenon, and other perspectives on the the psychology of charitable generosity.

During his talk, List asked for a volunteer to douse him in ice water, so that he could in turn challenge everyone else in the room. That counter-challenge, says List, encapsulates all three of the key ingredients to a convincing giving campaign: an activity that supports a good cause with good metrics for success, that is low cost and fun to share and engage with among friends, and that easily allows for subtle advertisement of one’s kindness. “I can pour ice over my head, and it’s an easy way for me to signal that I am a kind and giving person,” explained List.

List argued that there’s no shame in tapping into what motivates people–including sometimes selfish tendencies that we all share–in order to do some good in the world. The Science of Philanthropy Initiative supports empirical research and field experiments that seek to better understand what underlies those motivations. The purpose of the conference, according to List and initiative co-investigator Anya Samek, is to take stock of what researchers have learned and think about how practitioners can use it in the field.

List set the tone for subsequent presentations with an admission. “As scientists, I think we haven’t yet provided the sorts of information that practitioners need.”

The Problem of Other Minds

In his opening keynote, Nicholas Epley expressed the duality that a conference like this confronts: academics seek exactness, with cautious claims based on precise findings and data. Practitioners deal with messy realities of everyday life. Bridging the gap with conferences and partnerships allows for field experiments that let researchers test theories while really lending a hand to charitable organizations, said Epley.

Epley cited a well-worn philosophical problem as an example where field experiments could really yield some insight: the Other Minds Problem. “There is only one mind that you can experience directly on this planet: your own,” said Epley. “You can never have access to another’s mind; you can never really know that any conscious mind actually exists.” It’s an existential reality made messier by the fact that humans are really good at ignoring the philosophy that underpins it. We take milliseconds to make judgements about who to trust all the time, knowing full well we can’t read minds.

Examining the ways that people decide to trust others could have very real implications for understanding how people come to believe in causes–particularly causes that sometimes divide people. “We see a subtle version of the Other Minds Problem any time we have a conflict between two people,” said Epley. “We question whether the other side can reason at all; ‘I am rational, and you are not.'”

The behavioral scientist described several studies designed to quantify the divide between our own minds and those of others. In one, a speech written by either another person or a computer was presented to a subject in a sort of reverse Turing test. When the speech was read out loud by an actor, subjects were more likely to mistake computer-generated text for actual human speech, simply because they heard a human voice reading it. The same was true in reverse for speech written by a human being but conveyed as text on a computer screen. “Stripping away your voice strips away a bit of your humanity,” said Epley.

What do insights like this mean for philanthropy? Epley admitted that it’s hard to say; that’s why partner organizations are so critical to testing the theory in the real world. Organizations willing to try experiments in their giving appeals to see if the theory bears out–that a real human voice makes a difference–will be key to better understanding how to leverage behavioral insights in charity.

The Power of Partnerships

With help from the John Templeton Foundation, SPI’s goal of translating research examining into practice for charitable organizations has really taken flight in the past year.  In addition to the conference attendance swelling to more than  200 registrants, the initiative has been able to support 16 faculty projects and 17 PhD students over the past year, according to Samek.

Moreover, fitting the collaborative theme of the conference, she announced that ten partner organizations would be joining up with with initiative researchers like herself in order to cultivate field experiments like some detailed in case study presentations that peppered the later breakout sessions at the conference.

For example, take Terri Zhu of Louis Groceries, who approached List and Samek with a problem in need of creative solutions: how do you get low income families to choose foreign healthy foods over more familiar junk food options? Working with List and Samek, the charity turned its subsidized grocery stores, strategically located in impoverished parts of Chicago to address food deserts, into  laboratories for testing a series of different incentives aimed at pushing healthier choices on their shoppers.

Using a reward card program to track what people chose to buy, one treatment group received educational materials on what healthy choices could be found in the store; another received a dollar for buying five cups of fruits and vegetables per visit. While their findings are still early, preliminary analysis showed a marked increase in healthy buying behavior with the monetary incentive. Moreover, Samek, List and Zhu found evidence of habit formation even after those incentives are taken away. This could be instructive for policy, said Zhu. “You could imagine a program where the USDA introduced some small incentive in the form of food stamps dollars in exchange for a certain amount of fruit or vegetables purchased.”

Just a Little Push

Effective incentives most certainly don’t have to be monetary in nature. Other researchers at the conference found that the slightest tweaks to the way that individuals interact with a charity or social cause might make a difference in a person’s willingness to lend support.

Drawing from work with Elizabeth Keenan and Ayelet Gneezy, Uri Gneezy described a series of lab and field experiments looking at how “overhead aversion”–the fear that a charity’s operating costs waste resources that could be used to directly support a cause the donor wants to support–might be mitigated with assurances that overhead costs will be covered by by external sources, not prospective gifts.

David Reiley explained how, in a field study conducted with Samek, suggested donations nudged different types of donors to give more or less to their local public radio station.

Robert Metcalfe presented a fascinating idea, developed with coauthors Greer Gosnell and John List: why not let employees select charities they want to support, and have their corporate employers make donations on their behalf as an incentive for meeting internal performance goals? He used airlines–who struggle to incentivize their pilots to fly planes in a way that maximizes fuel and time use–as a potential target for a series of escalating performance goals that, when met, would trigger a donation on their behalf.

Particularly for older, more experienced pilots, such incentives really motivated a test group to adhere to stricter efficiency guidelines, hinting at a potential way for corporations to get more from their workers while giving them a sense of agency and purpose that a simple monetary bonus might not offer.

Rapid Expansion

The Science of Philanthropy initiative has grown quickly in two short years. The two-day conference, held both in downtown Chicago at the Fairmont Hotel and on the University of Chicago campus at the Saieh Hall for Economics, attracted 140 attendees last year alone. This year’s event included 44 talks from researchers and practitioners, as well as keynote talks from Nicholas Epley and Charles Longfield, executive vice president and chief scientist for Blackbaud. A third conference is planned for September 2015.

–Mark Riechers