Brittany Shoots-Reinhard: Tailoring is key to maximizing individual charitable impact


Dr. Brittany Shoots-Reinhard, FBB’s own Beyond Belief Network coordinator, holds a Ph.D. in social psychology from Ohio State University. Her research focuses on how people’s thoughts about their attitudes, personality, and goals influence their judgments and behavior. Brittany will be presenting at the Humanism At Work conference on the science of giving and volunteering.

“I always liked the idea of using charity contexts to study human behavior and decision making,” says Brittany. “A lot of what I learned about in grad school about persuasion, motivation, decision making, and social behavior applies to charitable giving and volunteering, which are specific types of purchasing and social behavior, respectively.”

A lot goes into people’s choices in being charitable, she explains. What can seem like a simple decision –to donate or not to donate– is often far from it. Factors such as psychological distance from the victims, or the lack of an identifiable victim, can stand in the way of people committing or donating to a cause. However, identifying the processes that go into charitable decision-making can make an impact, she adds: “Sometimes knowing about a potential bias in judgment can lessen its impact.”

The most important thing to realize, Brittany emphasizes, is that charity is more about opportunity than morality. What does this mean? “People have a tendency to overestimate the role of dispositional factors, like being a charitable person, relative to the situational factors, like not having time or energy to give.”

“There’s this classic study in social psychology about seminary students hurrying past a gasping man slumped in a doorway,” she continues. “They didn’t even see him. The punch line is that they’re late to give a lecture on the Good Samaritan, so all of their thoughts are about helping people – so much so that they miss the very real person who needs their help. We want to think that we’re especially good people, but neglecting those situational factors means we miss opportunities to be charitable. Or, we make it unintentionally difficult for members of our groups to be charitable.”

Brittany’s work at FBB comes with a huge number of small triumphs, like “hearing about someone’s new idea for a project or hearing about a successful event. It’s hard to choose a high point, because I like to think of a steady progression onwards. But there’ve been some great moments: hitting $100,000 and then $200,000 and so on for Light The Night; reaching 30,000 hours donated by BBN teams; adding 45 new service teams in 2013.”

When it comes to maximizing individual charitable impact, it’s all about tailoring, she says: “The trick is to find a cause or a project that energizes and motivates you. That’s going to be different for every person. I think everyone has some optimal level of involvement, too. Some people can spend every weekend at a soup kitchen, or every day in a job helping people; others give a couple dollars or a can of soup when they have the opportunity. I think the trick is helping people figure out what’s going to bring them the most joy and make sure that what they’re able to do actually helps.”

What’s her everyday inspiration in her work at FBB? The BBN team leaders. “Most of them are volunteers who work or go to school full-time and have family commitments and they put on spectacular fundraisers and service opportunities for their own teams and entire communities. They’re a constant source of inspiration.”

At the Humanism At Work conference in Chicago (July 18-20), Brittany will be talking more about motivation and the ways in which we can make it easier for people to be charitable. Register now to join her and the rest of our fantastic slate of speakers.