Donation experiment: COVID-19 only slightly displaces other concerns
The COVID-19 pandemic and its solution has only partially displaced other social and political concerns—and not persistently, despite the pandemic's high and constant media presence. This is shown by an international team of researchers led by the economist Esther Blanco from the University of Innsbruck. The results were recently published in the journal "Frontiers in Psychology".
Since spring 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has been omnipresent: incidence rates, hospital occupancy rates and, most recently, vaccination rates have pushed other topics out of the spotlight. Researchers from the University of Innsbruck, together with a colleague from the University of Paris-Nanterre, have looked at whether this displacement is also reflected in the willingness to donate to other social and political causes. "At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of uncertainty: we saw unprecedented amounts of money being allocated to COVID-19, and there were serious concerns that this would mean less money internationally and nationally for environmental protection or poverty alleviation measures," says Esther Blanco from the Department of Public Finance at the University of Innsbruck. "Other social problems and concerns, be it inequality, poverty or the climate crisis, did not just disappear in the pandemic, of course, but in the public consciousness these concerns were not as present as the Corona crisis. We wanted to understand to what extent the COVID-19 pandemic replaced other concerns," explains her colleague Natalie Struwe. In a donation experiment with over 1,700 participants funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF, the researchers were able to show that other social concerns were not completely displaced—and that, at least in the sample, there is a correlation between the incidence of COVID and the willingness to donate to social causes over a period of ten months: The higher the incidence, the higher the willingness to donate.
The participants, students at the University of Innsbruck, received 3 euros in the experiment, which they could donate to various social organizations or NGOs or keep for themselves. "We increased the donations by a quarter of the amount donated, so the participants had an additional incentive to donate," says Felix Holzmeister from the Department of Economics at the University of Innsbruck. A total of 1,762 people took part in the experiment. They were randomly assigned one of three scenarios: they could either donate to eight charities—the Red Cross, WWF, Doctors Without Borders, SOS Children's Villages, Amnesty International, "Licht ins Dunkel", Oxfam or Caritas –, to these eight and additionally to the WHO's COVID-19 Fund, or only to the WHO's COVID-19 Fund. In addition, the participants answered extensive questionnaires on their general willingness to donate, their attitudes to various social problems and to COVID-19. In the first two months of the experiment, the researchers collected data weekly, then monthly, and the experiment ran from April 2020 to January 2021. The researchers linked the donation data and the questionnaire survey with the COVID-19 incidence data for Tyrol, where most of the participants study and live.
Overall, participants donated an average of 2.50 euros when they had several NGOs to choose from—regardless of whether the COVID-19 Fund was part of the selection or not. At the same time, participants consistently made significant contributions to the COVID-19 Fund, both when it was the only fund available and when it was part of the list of nine organizations. "This shows that donations to other social causes are partially replaced by donations to the COVID-19 Fund when it is on the list of potential recipients; however, it does not completely replace any of the other social causes," says Alexandra Baier of the Department of Public Finance. Moreover, women tended to donate more than men, as did people who are particularly committed to COVID-19 mitigation and poverty alleviation. Those who perceive themselves to be at risk of poverty, on the other hand, donated less, and as the COVID-19 incidence rises, so does the willingness to donate—to all causes, not just the COVID-19 Fund. And another result clearly emerges in comparison with the questionnaire data: the trust that the participants place in a charity organization is an important explanatory factor for donations to the respective organization.
So, contrary to fears, social and political concerns such as environmental protection, poverty and inequality have by no means completely disappeared from the public consciousness—the COVID-19 crisis may have pushed these issues out of the media, but not out of people's minds. "We interpret this, among other things, as society's desire to use COVID-19 recovery funds in a way that supports these other social concerns as well," says Natalie Struwe.