In the week since Typhoon Haiyan caused a wide swath of devastation across the Philippines, many have been going online to donate to the thousands left hungry and homeless.

Canadians often respond quickly to such events, says Julie Marshall, the Canadian spokesperson for the United Nations World Food Programme. Natural disasters, such as the 2006 tsunami and the earthquake in Haiti, which often strike with little warning, tend to elicit more response from donors than slower crises, such as famines caused by drought.

The bulk of the donations tend to pour in within the first three months of such disasters and then trickle off, Marshall says. And with a large Filipino community in Canada, her group and the other non-governmental organizations they work with on the ground are hopeful for a strong continued response.

But what makes people want to pull out their chequebooks or head to their computers to make donations during such crises?

Marshall says she isn't sure, but suspects that seeing the images of desperate survivors or starving children on TV or online are often big motivators. Witnessing the thousands who have lost homes or who are struggling to find something to eat often elicits empathy and compels them to want to help.

And the science of charity tends to back that up.

Psychologists have long described a phenomenon called the "identifiable victim affect" to explain why images of devastation motivate many to send money to help. People tend to react with more emotion and empathy when they see actual identifiable victims of a disaster, rather than just hear about anonymous victims.

Research published last month in the Journal of Neuroscience looked into why this occurs.

The researchers wanted to know what emotional response brought on the urge to help, specifically, whether it was guilt or other negative emotions.  In fact, they found the opposite.

They had volunteers undergo functional MRI brain scans while the volunteers looked at images of orphans from the Darfur region of Sudan. The participants were then asked whether they wanted to donate $1 to $12 to help. In the images the volunteers saw:

  • half the orphans were seen in photographs
  • the other half were only silhouettes

The researchers found that seeing the photos increased people's willingness to donate by about 50 per cent compared to just seeing the silhouettes. The brain scans also revealed that the urge to donate money triggered parts of their brains that are associated positive emotional responses. In other words, when the volunteers saw the photos, they anticipated having good feeling about offering to help.

One of the researchers in that study, a psychologist named Paul Slovic, conducted another similar study in 2007, looking at how images of disaster victims can compel people to offer money.

For the experiment, his team gave the volunteers three scenarios and asked them to donate up to $5 to the charity Save the Children.

  • one group was shown a picture of a malnourished African girl named Rokia and were told of her personal story
  • another group heard just the statistical facts about Rokia's country of Mali
  • a third group were shown Rokia's picture but also told facts about the overall plight of starving African children

Perhaps not surprisingly, the volunteers were more likely to make a donation if they heard Rokia's personal story than if they just heard general statistics. But they were less willing to give in the third scenario, in which Rokia's plight was presented as part of a broader problem. 

The researchers concluded that donors were willing to help as long as they weren't reminded of the larger and more complicated systemic problems that led to Rokia's chronic hunger.

There are still other concerns that often cause potential donors to hesitate before they offer money to charities.

A recent U.S. Trust study found that high net worth individuals (those who had more than $3 million in assets) are often concerned about where their money is going when they donate to charity. They surveyed more than 100 high net worth individuals about why they hesitate to donate to charity.

One might assume the wealthy want to leave more money for their heirs or for themselves, but the survey found their reasons were more about distrust.

  • 30 per cent cited a concern that their gift wouldn't be used wisely by a non-profit recipient
  • 24 per cent said they felt a lack of a connection to a charity or a lack of knowledge
  • 17 per cent hesitated because of fear of increased donation requests from others

Other surveys have found that many who hesitate to offer aid during natural disasters, such as Typhoon Haiyan,  have concerns that their small contribution won't mean much when the countries such an immense task of rebuilding.

The World Food Programme's Marshall says her group has been on the ground in the Philippines for several decades, working on the issues that lead to food insecurity in the developing Pacific nation. She says for now, the focus is getting food to those who have been affected the most, through donations of rice and high energy biscuits.

Eventually, she says, the group's focus on emergency relief will turn toward development reconstruction and ensuring that roadways and communications are back up and running to allow food to get through.

Her group is seeking a total of US$101 million for its Typhoon Haiyan response for 6 months: around $88 million for food assistance, and about $13 million for logistics and emergency telecommunications operations.

The quickest and most cost-efficient way to donate, she says, is online, or through text message. The numbers are available here.