Do your political views make you charitable?

Professor Sarah Brown, Professor Karl Taylor

A new working paper asks whether people on the left or right (or in the centre) give more to charity

In 2017, people in the UK gave over £10 billion to charity, and ONS figures suggest that unpaid labour in the form of volunteering is worth over £20 billion.

But what motivates us to give our money or time? There’s existing research which shows that we give in order to feel good, or to look good to others, but we wanted to look at another motivation: our political leanings.

Mixed results from other data

This question has been explored in America, with mixed results. Some suggest that conservatives give more, and others seem to show that it’s liberals who are more generous.

All the US studies, so far, have been based on cross-section data or data from experiments. We used data from Understanding Society, and as far as we know, ours is the first paper to explore this issue in the UK, as well as being the first in the literature to use longitudinal data. As well as allowing us to observe the relationship between political affiliation and charitable behaviour, this also meant we could look at giving over time, to see if there was any change depending on who was in power.

Longitudinal data – the questions asked

During interviews for Understanding Society, participants are asked if they support a particular political party and if they feel closer to one party in particular. If they say ‘yes’ to either of these questions, the next question is ‘which party’, and how strong their support is. People who say they don’t support or feel close to a particular party are asked which one they would vote for if there was an election tomorrow. Waves 2, 4 and 6 of the survey also asked about how much money they’d given to charity in the last 12 months, and the number of hours they’d volunteered in the last four weeks.

We looked at a total of 28,142 individuals in England, and considered four political parties: Conservative, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party. We found a number of things which are consistent with existing research, such as:

  • men give less than women (in terms of both time and money)
  • people with children under 2 (unsurprisingly) volunteer considerably less of their time than those without children
  • people on a higher income give a smaller proportion of their income

Liberal v conservative?

We didn’t find that conservatives give more than liberals. What we did find was that people who support a political party seem to be more likely to give time and/or money than those who don’t support or feel close to any one party.

For example:

  • feeling closest to the Green Party is associated with donating about 73% more of annual income to charitable causes and volunteering 54% more hours than those who don’t feel close to any party
  • being affiliated with the Liberal Democrats, is associated with donating around 48% more of their annual income to charity and volunteering 35% more hours than those who don’t feel close to any party

The corresponding figures for Conservatives are also positive, although much smaller at 37% and 22%, respectively – and the smallest effects are found for being aligned with the Labour Party (32% and 18%).

We then looked at the 15,355 people who said they didn’t support or feel close to a political party, and who they said they’d vote for if there were an election the following day. These findings also cast the Greens and Lib-Dems in a good light. The largest effect on donations of time and money was seen in those who would vote for one of those parties.

When we looked at the level of interest someone has in politics, there was an association between this and their generosity. For example, focusing on the Conservative Party, if someone was ‘not very interested’, ‘fairly interested’ or ‘very interested’ in politics, the increase in donations is 30%, 40% and 60%, respectively, compared to someone who didn’t have a political affiliation.

Volunteering

The effect of political views on volunteering is interesting. People who said they supported a party were more likely to be volunteers, but also more likely to volunteer fewer hours than someone who didn’t say they had an affiliation to any particular party.

Giving under different governments

A change in government didn’t seem to change people’s donations of money to charities, but there did seem to be an increase in time given to volunteering when the Coalition and Conservative governments were in power.

The exception to this came from the Greens. When Labour were in power from 1997-2010, Green Party supporters gave 182% more of their income to charity than Labour supporters did – although this fell to 85% under the Coalition, and fell again when the Conservatives went into government on their own in 2015.

In terms of volunteering, under a Labour government, Green supporters gave no more of their time than did Labour supporters. After 2015, Greens increased their volunteering time by 56%.

Why might people do this?

In politically polarised times, people on all sides have strong views, and are sometimes inclined to judge their opponents’ characters more than their arguments. Finding out which side is the most generous is one way of shedding some light on that, but our research shows that the answer isn’t straightforward.

However, given how important charities can be in providing care, support and funding where sometimes governments don’t, research which helps us to understand what makes people donate their time and money is useful.

It’s interesting to note that, before 2015, volunteering was going to receive official recognition – with a planned amendment to the Working Time Regulations allowing people three days of paid volunteering on top of their 28 days of paid holiday. It may be that the next change in government sees this come into effect, and many more people start giving their time, regardless of their political leanings.

Either way, we hope to see more research into what motivates people’s charitable behaviour.

Authors

Professor Sarah Brown

Sarah Brown is Professor of Economics at the University of Sheffield

Professor Karl Taylor

Karl Taylor is Professor of Economics at the University of Sheffield