New research looks at the links between what we donate to charity and what we say about it on social media

The key to mounting a successful charity campaign? Appeal to people's vanity. That's one of the lessons from new research by Dr. Elaine Wallace from NUI Galway and Dr Isabel Buil from the University of Zaragoza in Spain into the link between charitable donations and social media posts. Wallace recently spoke to Cormac Ó hEadhra on RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime about her findings. Here are some excerpts from the conversation that have been edited for length and clarity.

"What we wanted to see was how charities can best use social media to encourage charitable donations", says Wallace about the motivation behind the research. "In the past, campaigns by charities are used on social media in a way for just showing off or joining a viral craze without those people giving money to the charity. One of the most important things for charities is they get donations of time or money from people, but also that people spread word of mouth and awareness about the charity. We wanted to see whether you could actually segment people based on how they post about the charities and why they do, and we found that there are four types of people."

Let's say hello to the dirty altruist: "it's a term we're using for individuals who would post about charities on social media, particularly Facebook. They give money to charity, but their primary motivation for posting about this on social media is to impress other people, and they actually admitted that in our survey.

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"These are people who have personality traits of what we call a high need for uniqueness so they like to stand out from the crowd. But they're also what we call high self-monitors, so they're very much aware of how other people view their profile. And they have a lot of Facebook friends, so they tend to post about charities on social media, partly because they want to show off to other people."

Then, there are the quiet donors who give money but don't post on social media about it. "They're very quiet about it on social media", explains Wallace. "In fact, they don't have a very large social media presence at all. They have a small number of Facebook friends. They don't spend much time on social media compared to the other groups. They will give, and they'll certainly, in particular, give money to the charity, but they don't necessarily want to post about it or make a post about it."

On the other hand, the Facebook expressives talk a lot on social media but don't put their hands in their pockets. "What we looked at is the idea of conspicuous donation behavior, and this has previously been looked at offline where people want to, for instance, wear something associated with a charity to look good. Well, these guys actually do this on social media, so they want to make an impression on other people.

Unlike the dirty altruist, the Facebook expressive doesn't give money

"But when we measure their intention to donate either time or money, it's really low. So they actually don't really have much interest in giving. They just want to engage with whatever campaign is ongoing. So they have a very high number of Facebook friends, and they really want to stand out.

"Unlike the dirty altruist, they don't give money. We believe they're using social media for self-expressive purposes, and charity is just one way for them to do that. They have a very high need to stand out and they also post about the charities because they believe that's very socially acceptable. So they really want to sort of express themselves and show off to other people, but there's not really that engagement with the charity in terms of giving at all."

The fourth category the research uncovered was the friendly donor. "I would say that we have a higher number of friendly donors in Ireland. A friendly donor is somebody who has posts because the charity has real intrinsic meaning to them, so it matters personally to them, so they're not as inclined to be as showing off. They just want to highlight the charity because it means something to them. They are also very likely to donate so this group are much more common among the Irish respondents that we had in our survey."

What does all this mean for charities? "I think social media is still a useful way for charities to engage with potential donors", believes Wallace. "And even when people are posting and spreading viral messages, but not seeming to donate, they still have value because of word of mouth. I think it is possible to look at the types and say there are different kinds of messages that work for different groups. But certainly social media is still valuable to reach people, and I think people do engage with charities on social media."

Hear the discussion in full below

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The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ