Why Do People Give to Charity?

Giving is motivated by humans’ deeply held need to find meaning in life.

imageAs an investment advisor, I regularly consult with wealthy individuals about how to maximize the financial resources at their disposal. I specialize in working with philanthropic families, and that work often lays bare the seeming conflict between maximizing resources and giving them away. If humans want to maximize the resources available to them, why do they take such joy in giving these resources away?

I believe that giving is motivated by humans’ deeply held need to find meaning in life. For most people, meaning is deeply intertwined with community connections (defining community as narrowly as family and as broadly as the full community of life). Humans want to feel a sense of connection and a sense of purpose to life. Giving (time, money, and energy) is a central way that we strive to find meaning.

Much has been made of selfish motivations behind giving. No doubt, some giving is motivated by selfishness. However, if we look to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (a central theory of what drives human behavior) we find that while humans are driven by items that benefit them, once these needs (food, sleep, security, etc.) are met, they are driven by the desire for self-actualization. Maslow describes self-actualizing people:

  • They embrace the facts and realities of the world (including themselves) rather than denying or avoiding them.
  • They are spontaneous in their ideas and actions.
  • They are creative.
  • They are interested in solving problems; this often includes the problems of others. Solving these problems is often a key focus in their lives.
  • They feel a closeness to other people, and generally appreciate life.
  • They have a system of morality that is fully internalized and independent of external authority.
  • They have discernment and are able to view all things in an objective manner.

To me, this is a wonderful description of the very best philanthropists.

Because what is good for our community is good for each of us (in that individuals in thriving, happy communities are generally happier themselves), there is a way in which giving comes back to benefit the giver. This feedback loop is wonderful, but I believe that humans’ motivation to give is rooted in their desire to find meaning through community, not the hope that doing so will benefit them.

Recently, much research has focused on how our brains are hardwired to chemically reward us for acts of giving. To some, the idea that giving would trigger this sort of response implies a level of selfishness behind the act of charity. But this logic implicitly suggests that breathing, eating, and falling in love are all “selfish” as well, since our brain chemistry rewards us in similar ways for these actions. Rather than suggesting that giving is selfish, I think the research shows that giving is a central need/desire for humans. This is actually quite remarkable, since logic would dictate that giving is something we do for others, and that we must lose something for others to gain. Instead, the research suggests that giving is a motivation much like eating and breathing. It is something we must do to survive and thrive.

The motivations of each individual giver are of course unique. But just as we eat to satisfy our desire to live, we give to satisfy our desire for meaning.

AdvertisementSean Stannard-Stockton is a principal and director of Tactical Philanthropy at Ensemble Capital Management. Ensemble Capital provides families both traditional investment management and philanthropic planning. He is the author of the blog Tactical Philanthropy and writes the column On Philanthropy for the Financial Times.

Tracker Pixel for Entry


  • Kristen Cox's avatar

    BY Kristen Cox

    ON March 13, 2008 11:53 AM

    You don’t mention the tax benefit of giving as well.  Do you ask, or can you assess whether tax incentives factor into their motivation? I would postulate that it would depend on degree of wealth and amount and areas of giving as well as how progressive the individual claims to be.

  • Lynn Andersen's avatar

    BY Lynn Andersen

    ON March 13, 2008 12:15 PM

    I would also suggest that this “hardwiring” has a lot to do with who created us!  While I don’t know anything but anecdotal evidence, I would think that those active in their faith lives are some of the most “cheerful givers”.

  • What percentage of people in the country are self-actualized? Of those that do give,  how many are self-actualized.  As an aside , have Maslow’s theories been tested, replicated and validated.

    Woudn’t it be nice, and feel good if we thought that eveyone who gave did so because they cared.

    With the small amount of foudational dollars that come into the non-profit sector, I wonder if the wealthy individuals who create these foundations do so because they are self-actualized or need a tax break.  When a foundation gives $1,000 to a local charity that serves the poor and $600,000 to a well know law school I wonder who really benefits.  Is that reflective of self-actualized giving.

    Perhaps we should just accept the fact that people give for many reasons. Some reasons may be know to the individual, and if we wated to put a Freudian spin on giving, we could hypothesize that many give because of what is burried deep within their psyche.

  • BY Peter Durkson

    ON March 13, 2008 01:03 PM

    Giving is love made visible.

  • Venkatanathan's avatar

    BY Venkatanathan

    ON March 14, 2008 03:24 AM

    Mother Theresa once said “GIVE TILL HUTRS YOU”.It is only that giving that is supreme which hurts the giver in some way.

  • BY Mal Warwick

    ON March 14, 2008 04:39 PM

    Thank you for this insightful and encouraging comment on the philanthropic impulse.

    I’ve been working for three decades as a professional fundraiser and now spend much of my time teaching the principles and practice of fundraising and philanthropy to NGOs around the world, mostly in the Global South. In speaking about donor motivation, I explain that there are three dimensions of motivation: the heart, the mind, and the spirit. The heart, of course, encompasses the emotional case that any savvy fundraiser relates in seeking a gift. The mind refers to the logical aspects of the case, seeking to establish credibility. The spirit, though, is the realm your post relates to. Well done!

    Now to respond to a couple of the earlier comments . . .

    Research in the USA, which offers tax benefits for giving as generous as any found in the world, makes it clear that tax savings are *not* a major factor in motivating most donors. Tax benefits loom large in connection with some major gifts, especially those involving appreciated property (such as works of art or securities). But their impact on giving in general is much exaggerated in the public mind.

    However, it is certainly true that religiously observant people tend to be the most generous donors. High rates of charitable giving correlate with regular attendance at church, synagogue, or mosque. And giving by observant folk isn’t limited to religious charities. In fact, giving to religious nonprofits has declined sharply as a percentage of the whole during the three decades in which I’ve been active in the field. That percentage was well over 50 for a very long time. It has now declined to about 37%.

  • BY Sean Stannard-Stockton

    ON March 20, 2008 09:55 AM

    Thanks for your comments. I’ve left a response to some of your points here: http://tacticalphilanthropy.com/2008/03/why-do-people-give-to-charity-2

Leave a Comment


Please enter the word you see in the image below:


SSIR reserves the right to remove comments it deems offensive or inappropriate.