Helping the Homeless: The Role of Empathy, Race and Deservingness in Motivating Policy Support and Charitable Giving

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August 09, 2019

What will motivate citizens to support efforts to help those in need? Charitable organizations seeking support for their cause will often use the story of a specific individual to illustrate the problem and generate support. We explore the effectiveness of this strategy using the issue of homelessness. Specifically, we examine the role that the race of beneficiaries featured in a message, and the inclusion of deservingness cues highlighting external attributions for an individual’s homelessness have on willingness to donate to the homeless and support government efforts to address homelessness. Utilizing two experiments with a nationally representative probability sample and an online opt-in quota sample, we find significant effects of deservingness information on expressions of sympathy, and on support for government efforts to address homelessness when viewing individuals from one’s own racial group. Direct effects on charitable giving are inconsistent across studies, with modest evidence that deservingness cues are associated with donation behavior in one. We also uncover interesting heterogeneity in how individuals react to a message about the homeless based on their predispositions. We discuss the implications for those utilizing this messaging strategy.

Charitable organizations and advocacy groups assisting society’s most vulnerable members often utilize messages that feature individual stories of those in need. For example, the Community Food Bank of New Jersey has a “Real Stories” section on their website that tells the stories of those served by food pantries in their network.Footnote1 In February 2018, the Oxfam website featured the story of a Syrian refugee family’s journey to the US which concluded by saying “Shehadeh’s story underscores the precarious position many refugees face” and asking people to pledge to fight for refugees by providing their contact information and making a donation. In each case, these organizations use humanizing appeals to illustrate a problem and elicit support for their cause. This approach is not uncommon. Political actors utilize individual stories in campaign ads and speeches making appeals for a particular policy.

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