Do people give to meet needs? It's widely assumed that most donor activity has the needy in mind, but this might not be true.
I've just completed a study called How Donors Choose Charities and found that, on the whole, people choose causes that mean something to them rather than those that meet the most urgent needs.
They support organisations that promote their own preferences, help people they feel some affinity with and relate to their own experiences.
One interviewee described his enthusiastic support for charities that help maltreated dogs, before adding: "But I wouldn't support cats because I just happen not to like cats. It's as silly and as simple as that."
Another said: "I donate to the RSPB because birdwatching is one of my great obsessions. It's a kind of treat to myself."
Another interviewee said: "I'm a passionate skier, so a personal favourite is a charity that provides snow sports opportunities for people with disabilities."
But such personal tastes are largely absent from fundraisers' calculations. Appeals tend to focus on the importance and urgency of the cause, rather than on the enthusiasms of donors.
The resulting fundraising literature is largely framed in an overly worthy manner, with the message 'support this because it's important, or the right thing to do'.
What would happen if fundraisers were more willing to acknowledge that people support what they like, what they know and what they care about? Heritage organisations might dare to say 'join us if you like trooping round nice homes and gardens', rather than 'join us in the fight to preserve the nation's heritage'.
And would it be considered gauche or refreshingly honest for a medical research charity to say: 'Scared of developing X? Then give now!'?
People probably prefer to believe they have more high-minded motivations, which results in the dressing up of giving as solely needs-based, ignoring the more personal factors.
But at a time when honesty and transparency are widely touted as essential features of fundraising, some donors might appreciate a more candid approach.
FACT FILE - INSIDE THE RESEARCH
How Donors Choose Charities is the first full-length research report to be published by the Centre for Giving and Philanthropy. The centre has received a total of £2.2m in funding for 2008-13 from groups including the Office for Civil Society, the Scottish Executive and the Carnegie UK Trust.
The sample contained equal numbers of low, middle and high-income donors. Of the 60 interviewees, who were recruited with the help of the Charities Aid Foundation, 38 were male and 22 were female. There was a spread of ages, from people in their 30s to those in their 80s, with people in their 60s the most highly represented.
This project is part of a research programme at Kent and Southampton universities on 'charity and social redistribution'. Future studies will include how companies pick 'charity of the year' partners and whether charity 'hot spots' and 'deserts' exist.