New research identifies Dirty Altruists among four types who post about charity online

Dr Elaine Wallace, co-author of the research and Senior Lecturer in Marketing, J.E. Cairnes School of Business and Economics, NUI Galway. Photo: Elaine Wallace
Apr 27 2021 Posted: 09:57 IST

New research from NUI Galway has revealed four different types of individual who post about charity on their social media, and it found that some types are less altruistic than they might first appear.

It is a challenging time for all businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic. Particularly so for charity organisations who are very reliant on donations of time and money from the public and often use social media in their marketing campaigns.

The research was conducted in collaboration with the University of Zaragoza in Spain, and follows charitable initiatives such as the Ice Bucket Challenge and #nomakeupselfie which, as well as being awareness and fundraising initiatives, became social media sensations. The researchers wanted to know whether people who posted about charities on social media were making charity donations, or whether they were all about the action, rather than the cause.

Dr Elaine Wallace, co-author of the research and Senior Lecturer in Marketing, J.E. Cairnes School of Business and Economics, NUI Galway, said: “Although social media can be an excellent way to spread your message, there is some cynicism about these campaigns, as people participate but not everyone donates. One critic even labelled these campaigns a ‘narcissists' bonanza'. 

“Previously, the term ‘Conspicuous Donation Behaviour’ was developed to explain acts of conspicuous compassion such as publicly wearing ribbons following a donation so that everyone can see that we have donated. However no-one knows whether our social media posts reflect what we do offline. We could post a selfie as part of a charitable campaign to show others how good we are, without ever donating. Or we might donate, and we might also post online to make sure everyone on social media knows about it. And this poses the question, are we ‘dirty altruists’?”

The authors investigated the views of 243 Irish and 296 US Facebook users who had posted about a charity on Facebook. They measured their Conspicuous Donation Behaviour, their Facebook activity (their time spent online and number of Facebook friends), their traits (such as materialism and self-esteem), and their intention to donate time or money to that charity.

Using a cluster analysis technique, four types were revealed, common to Ireland and the US:

⦁ Quiet Donors: This group are not materialistic, and they have low interest in impressing others. They are the least active on social media, but they are likely to donate money to the charity. The study labelled them ‘quiet donors’ as they are inconspicuous about their charity donations, and are not involved with conspicuous donation behaviour.
⦁ Friendly Donors: This group are active on Facebook and post about a charity only when it has a deep personal meaning for them, rather than to impress others. They have a lower need for uniqueness, and so they are not worried about standing out on Facebook. They have a high intention to donate time and money, and will donate when the charity has personal meaning.
⦁ Facebook Expressives: This group are most active on Facebook, and very conspicuous in their posts about charities online. They have a high need for uniqueness, and they may be posting about charities in order to stand out and impress their large number of Facebook friends, or because they believe it is socially acceptable. Yet they have a low intention to donate money or time to the charity, so their real world behaviour does not match their online posts.
⦁ Dirty Altruists: This group has the largest number of Facebook friends. They have a high need for uniqueness and high levels of sensitivity to others’ views of their posts, meaning they are careful to post about popular items. Unlike the Facebook Expressives, this group donate offline, but they admitted in the survey that they post about charities on Facebook to impress others. They also are highly materialistic, and so their charitable posts may be a form of conspicuous consumption. The study authors labelled them ‘Dirty Altruists’ because they are altruistic, but their altruism is tarnished because it is partly motivated by their need to make an impression on social media.

Dr Isabel Buil, co-author of the study, University of Zaragoza Spain, said: “Social media presents great opportunities for charities to spread their message and engage a wide network. Our study shows that, for some (the Facebook Expressives), their online charity posts are not matched by charitable behaviour. Another group will post and donate only when the charity has a personal meaning for them (the Friendly Donors). Other types give, but they vary by the amount they post about it on social media, with Quiet Donors engaging very little with Facebook, and others by their use of social media for impression management (the Dirty Altruists). 

“However, even the Facebook Expressives have the potential to spread awareness about the charity as they often have large numbers of Facebook friends. We hope our findings help charities to identify the likely donors, even the quiet ones, and those who might help to spread awareness.”

To read the full study in the journal, Emerald Insight, visit:


Marketing and Communications Office


Featured Stories