RGK Faculty Fellow: Marlone Henderson

What circumstances influence an individual’s motivation to donate either time or money to a charitable cause? In his research on prosocial behavior, RGK Center Faculty Fellow and Assistant Professor of Psychology Marlone Henderson has been engaged in a series of studies looking at factors that impact psychological barriers to charitable giving and volunteering. Prosocial behavior―when an individual takes action to help others―is “a huge area in social psychology,” Henderson says, and philanthropy is a prime example of a prosocial or “helping” behavior.

Henderson’s research pursuits in philanthropy began almost as an accident at the University of Chicago (where he taught from 2006 to 2008) through his involvement in a study looking at how other people affect an individual’s motivations. A relative of one of the members of the research team was in a senior position at an international NGO that seeks sponsors for children in war-torn or impoverished regions of the world. This connection provided an opportunity to test some ideas on group activities and donation goals. Using previous donors as subjects, the team wrote letters using a variety of appeals to raise money for an emergency relief fund to see which approach resulted in the most money raised. “It was a win-win,” said Henderson. “We tested our ideas, and we raised money to support kids.”

Ever since, this opportunity to conduct research while having practical real-world impacts has been a key feature in Henderson’s continuing study of what helps people transcend psychological barriers to giving or volunteering.

Last year, Henderson and colleagues published “When others cross psychological distance to help: Highlighting prosocial actions toward outgroups encourages philanthropy” in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. This study looked at how others’ actions can influence an individual’s decision to help a socially distant (vs. close) beneficiary. [Read more here]. Other work has tested some accepted persuasion techniques from social psychology that have since been found to be less effective than just asking outright for donations of time or money. These results were recently published in Social Psychological & Personality Science. [Read more here.]

Henderson is currently in the middle of a large-scale data collection effort looking at factors affecting volunteer motivation across a range of charitable cause contexts. Some of this work is focused on the best ways to engage volunteers, specifically through the type of time commitment offered. Thus far, the research indicates that when people are focused on their idealistic concerns, they are more likely to engage in a one-time, intensive volunteer commitment. However, when focused on more practical concerns, potential volunteers are more likely to commit to volunteering that is “distributed” over time.

This experimental research on philanthropic motivation, says Henderson, is inherently interesting and also very important. Identifying the psychological factors that increase potential donors’ or volunteers’ receptivity to philanthropic requests facilitates predictive analysis that nonprofits and charitable organizations can use to enhance their fundraising and volunteer recruitment efforts.

Henderson teaches Social Psychology, an introductory course typically taken by psychology majors that focuses on how people influence each other and which covers “all the topics of life,” he says, including relationships, aggression, helping behaviors, and so on. In this course, he typically is only able to devote about two lectures to the topic of prosocial behavior, but it is one that he says really makes his students light up. So, in fall 2013, he is working to design a new course for the spring that focuses on prosocial behavior with an interdisciplinary, project-based format in which students will identify and work with a charitable organization around an identified task, such as raising money for the organization or building awareness. “This is what students want from education,” he says. “They really like seeing direct results and immediate outcomes.”

Henderson’s recent research is directly aligned with the RGK Center’s mission to build knowledge about nonprofit organizations, philanthropy, and volunteerism and to prepare students and practitioners to make effective contributions to their communities. Read more about Marlone Henderson’s work and RGK Center Faculty Fellows here. Access UT Austin Knowledge Matters videos (“Ask a UT Psychologist”) featuring Dr. Henderson here.