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Can people be nudged into giving more?

Tucked away on page 19 of the government’s green paper on giving are two short sentences that speak volumes.

“We know that tax reliefs for charitable giving provide incentives for donors and support to charities more generally”, it says. “We will review the relationship between financial incentives and giving.”

End of discussion.

Yes, we do indeed know that tax reliefs are a big incentive and are one of the key reasons why giving levels are higher in the USA. So if the government is serious about raising giving levels in the UK, why is the subject not discussed more fully in this consultation document?

The answer is likely to be that the Treasury put the kybosh on that at an early stage. In the current squeeze, anything that might reduce the tax take is probably seen as a complete non-starter.
So tax incentives go firmly into the ‘jam tomorrow’ folder, where they are likely to stay for some time, and the green paper concentrates instead on other proposals.

Flick forward to page 30 for an insight into these. This is the references page, where two entries catch the eye.

One is an article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology from 1990 entitled ‘A focus theory of normative conduct: Recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places.’

Another is from Science in 2008 entitled ‘Spending money on others promotes happiness’.
There’s plenty of discussion about that sort of thing in this green paper, which says “insights from behavioural science have enormous potential.” It talks, for example, about creating “a peer effect that leads to giving spreading and growing.”

It’s no secret that there’s great interest in this kind of thing in the Cabinet Office, where the Strategy Unit, which works closely with the Office for Civil Society includes a behavioural insights team.This is the outfit that has been promoting the notion of ‘nudge’ – the idea that people’s behaviour is hugely influenced by social norms and what they see their neighbours and peers doing.

So can people be nudged into giving more? Or is the more powerful driver of human behaviour always an economic one? Discuss…