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A new study released by the UC San Diego Rady's School for Management showed an increase in charitable giving in areas hardest hit by the pandemic. 

Published in the peer-reviewed, open-access journal Nature’s Scientific Reports, the findings reveal that charitable giving increased in 78 percent of the counties that experienced a greater threat from COVID-19 during the study period from March to August of 2020. 

Human services charities benefited the most from increases in generosity, according to researchers.

“While giving increased overall in areas affected by COVID-19, we also did not see decreases in donations to any charity categories, such as education or environmental issues,” said lead author Ariel Fridman, a Ph.D. candidate in behavioral marketing at the Rady School. “This is surprising given that a record-high majority of Americans reported a worsening financial situation during the same time. This contradicts some prior work suggesting that when people experience such financial scarcity, they act out of their self-interest to acquire financial wealth. For example, there was a decline in charitable giving during the 2008 financial crisis.”

Fridman and co-authors Rachel Gershon, assistant professor of marketing at the Rady School, and Ayelet Gneezy, the Carol Lazier and Family Endowed Chair in Social Innovation and Impact also at the Rady School analyzed donations data from Charity Navigator spanning July 2016 to December 2020. 

“Amidst the uncertainty, fear, and tragedy of the pandemic, we find a silver lining: people became more financially generous toward others in the presence of the COVID-19 threat,” write the authors. “This work adds to our understanding of human behavior during times of crisis.”

Researchers found that giving in counties where COVID-19 deaths occurred increased by about 30 percent from March to December 2020. Using additional data from fieldwork the researchers conducted, they measured the giving behavior of 1,000 members of the public that were broadly representative of the U.S. population. 

Participants of the field study played an economics game from March to August 2020  via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, assessing their generosity monthly. 

By comparing the two charitable giving datasets to a measure of threat from the novel coronavirus based on new, daily COVID-19 deaths per million in U.S. counties using data from Johns Hopkins, researchers found increased generosity in areas where COVID-19 deaths occurred.

“Individuals may have been motivated to give more as a result of increased feelings of sympathy,” the authors wrote. “They also could have had a desire to regain a sense of agency while they were in a situation where they felt they had little control. Or it could be that people were faced with their mortality more because unfortunately, the pandemic made death more salient. Donors may have also given to experience positive emotions (e.g., warm glow) during a stressful period.”

Data from Charity Navigator also revealed individuals donated to honor those who passed away during the pandemic or were otherwise affected. The study found that the proportion of donations made “in memory of” someone was significantly greater in 2020 than every prior year.

“Our findings have significant societal implications and advance our understanding of economic and psychological theories of social preferences in times of crises,” the authors wrote. 

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