Best-Laid Plans of Potential Donors: Bridging the Intention-Behavior Gap

If we were to reflect on how much we donated in the past, some of us would admit that we could have given more.  At the same time we might claim that we intended to give more, but just hadn’t come around to finding the right charities or the time to act on it. The question is, if we were to reflect on others’ giving less than they could have, would we also assume that they had intended to give more, but just hadn’t gotten around to acting on it due to external factors?

This question is important for those who are active in promoting giving in part because of a human bias – the fundamental attribution error (i.e., over-attributing intentions to others’ behavior; assuming that people actively chose not to give rather than assuming that they intended to, but never got around to it). This human bias might lead us to focus too much on increasing  the intention to give without paying sufficient attention to the intention-behavior gap in giving. As a result, we could end up effectively wasting the intention to give, and ignoring the importance of helping people actually implement the act of giving. The good news is, especially for those dedicated to promote doing good, that the pitfall of under-estimating individuals’ willingness to give and over-estimating the success of their acting on their good intentions, lends itself to some great opportunities to promote giving.

When we examine our own giving behavior, we may soon discover that we are more generous in our intention to give than in our actual giving behavior. In other words, like many of our intentions, such as attempting to exercise more or eat less, we often don’t do it as much as we say we’d like to, even in the domain of charitable giving – while Americans give 3% of their income on average, they believe that one should give 6%. In addition, research conducted by CAH’s own Ari Kagan and Nick Fitz found that 85% of people reported not giving as much as they would’ve liked. In fact, they wanted to give 2.5 times more, on average. Who would’ve thought?

Needless to say, it’s easier to recognize the intention-behavior gap in behaviors that benefit ourselves, like cutting down on late-night snacks, than behaviors that benefit others (at least for those economists who still deeply believe that humans are self-regarding by nature). And let’s admit it, the intention-behavior gap is probably smaller in giving than in living healthily. Nevertheless, the gap is there. Increasingly more research shows that giving has a positive impact on happiness, and that people generally report giving less than they intended to.

Are there reasons to assume that the giving behavior is deterred by implementation barriers besides monetary constraints? Here are two examples of potential barriers:


Sometimes, we simply forget to donate. It’s hard for us to keep track of all the things we intend to do, and we end up focusing on urgent tasks, while postponing those that don’t have strict deadlines – charitable donation is no exception. Indirect evidence of this is that many people end up donating close to the end of the year for tax exemption reasons, but not before. We sometimes forget about our good intentions, and only remember them when we are prompted by the holidays and end-of-the-year tax exemption or fundraising campaigns. But with many other deadlines to meet at the end of the year, it’s easy for the deadline of giving to be moved to the bottom of the priority list, even though it may be on top of our mind, and we end up only partially meeting our donation goals.  

Choice Overload

The tendency to experience “choice overload” is illustrated by a well-known study in behavioral economics conducted by Iyengar and Lepper. In this experiment, shoppers were either exposed to a display of 24 jams or a display of 8 jams. They were free to test and/or purchase as many as they liked. Although more people stopped to look at the 24-jam display, shoppers were one-tenth as likely to buy as people who saw the 8-jam display. Choice overload also affects the charitable giving industry. There are over 1 million registered charities in the US alone, serving myriad causes. As illustrated in the jam study example, even though we often believe that more choice is better, this is not the case. In the presence of so many choices, we procrastinate, fearing that we won’t be making a good decision or pick the right charities.

Remedies to bridge intention-behavior gap in giving

Fortunately, there are remedies to combat these behavioral barriers underlying the intention-behavior gap of charitable giving. For instance, to combat forgetfulness, it would be useful to introduce charitable appeals when donors are likely to have the time and energy to respond right away (think lunchtime, weekends, or after-work hours) so that they don’t forget later. In addition, when we get a chance to email potential donors, instead of appealing to their motive to give as usual, consider sending just a gentle reminder of their intent to give instead.

To combat choice overload, and help prospective donors choose which charities to support, direct potential donors to sites like GiveWell, which keep a ranking of the most effective charities, and offer to allocate users’ donations to the most effective causes. Narrowing down donors’ choices makes giving relatively hassle-free and may galvanize more people to action.

Lastly, recognizing the intention-behavior gap in giving doesn’t mean that there is no room for increasing the intention to give. For instance, as shown in the 1st column of the table below, there are barriers that affect donors’ intention to give. We will dive further into these in our next post.

Giving money to charity is one thing that most of us can probably agree is a good thing. But, like many of our intentions to be healthier and happier, we often don’t do it as much as we say we’d like to. Though Americans give more money to charitable causes than people in most other countries, we still give less, on average, than we think we should.

The key takeaway is that there are ample opportunities to promote giving through bridging potential donors’ intention-behavior gap. In doing so, we can avoid wasting the good intention inherent in humans, or the good intention many charitable organizations work hard to create.


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Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319, 1687-1688.

Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6), 995-1006.

doi: 10.1037//0022-3514.79.6.995

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Sheeran, P., & Webb, T. L. (2016). The intention-behavior gap. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 10(9), 503-518. doi: 10.1111/spc3.12265