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Encouraging people to donate their time is a perennial problem for charities and volunteer groups. But the good news, according to an international study compiled in the US, Canada and the UK, is that anyone can be turned into a giver if they receive the right cues.

The research, co-authored by Cambridge’s Judge Business School, Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, initially showed that the key to a person’s willingness to volunteer their time to a cause is the strength of their “moral identity”.

The moral identity of a number of people was calculated according to how strongly they identified with nine worthy traits, such as generosity, honesty and kindness. Those with a higher moral identity were more likely to volunteer their time.

The researchers then discovered they could increase the moral identity score of any of these individuals, either by exposing them to the list of traits again or by showing them pictures of famous people known for their good character, such as Gandhi, Mother Teresa or Abraham Lincoln.

Eric Levy, a marketing lecturer at Judge and co-author of the study, claims the findings have significant implications for how charities and other good causes recruit volunteers for time-giving tasks.

“The really neat thing about our study is that we show it is not just the highly moral people that can be made to volunteer,” Professor Levy says. “By showing these moral exemplars, you can get anyone to show this higher moral identity and make them more likely to give.”

Charities that need people’s time should be thinking about adding these cues into their promotional materials, Professor Levy adds. “Putting certain words or pictures in adverts can get people to think in a more moral way.”

When the cost of giving time rises, people with a high moral identity may be more motivated to give their time, and those with a low moral identity are more averse to giving their time.

Conversely, in low-cost situations, those with a high moral identity are less apt to give their time than are people with low moral identity.

The study, called I Don’t Want the Money, I Just Want Your Time: How Moral Identity Overcomes the Aversion to Giving Time to Pro-Social Causes, has just been accepted for publication by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“A strong moral identity may reduce time aversion not despite the higher cost of giving time but rather because of it,” the study says. “Put another way, giving time more strongly reinforces the moral self, compared to giving money.”

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