Why Do People Really Give to Charity?

Altruism is still a powerful factor for donors.

In February I wrote a post positing that people give to charity as a way to satisfy their deeply held need to find meaning in life. The post is now the number 2 result in Google for the phrase, “why do people give to charity.” The number 1 result is a publication of The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis titled, “The Economics of Charitable Giving: What Gives?” The paper discusses theories of giving labeled “Perfect Altruism,” “The Warm Glow,” and “Prestige,” and concludes:

“Although some people may be altruistic when giving, economics tells us that the dominant motivation is the internal satisfaction that individuals derive from the act of giving itself. Individuals derive utility from giving much in the same way they obtain satisfaction from buying a new car or eating at a restaurant; especially when the number of donors is large, and the social context of other people’s giving is overshadowed by the satisfaction of one’s own giving when considering how much to give.”

I think the paper is a bit misleading. When trying to predict behavior, economics assumes but does not prove that people act in ways that maximize their own self-interest. Economics does not “tell us” that internal satisfaction is the dominant motivation for humans. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines altruism as, “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others” or “behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species.” But I believe that only an incredibly narrow view of life holds that helping others is somehow separate from helping ourselves. Humans are communal animals. Without “others” we find life intolerable. If a person sacrifices for another, it is not simply “unselfish,” it is because they would be completely miserable if they chose to look the other way. Any parent knows that the happiness and health of their children is more important than their own needs. This isn’t “unselfish,” it is just something hardwired into our DNA.

The narrative of philanthropy is dominated by the concept that people who give do so for personal gain. I’ve seen many references explaining that Warren Buffett’s gift to the Gates Foundation was a way for him to exploit a loophole to avoid taxes. However, I think that narrative is false. Humans are interconnected with each other whether we like it or not. The fact that helping others also helps us does not diminish the act of giving. It is the brilliant fact of life that makes community work.

I’d now like to address a number of counter arguments I received in response to my original post.

Comment: “…I wonder if the wealthy individuals who create these foundations do so because they are self-actualized or need a tax break.”

The idea that people give because they “need a tax break” is widely believed, but is completely disingenuous. My professional expertise is in helping people structure the financial side of giving in the best possible way. The definition of “best possible” depends on the person’s goals, but limiting taxes is always a consideration. But let me clarify, you cannot legally structure a charitable gift so that the donor receives a net increase in their wealth. If you give away $1,000, you might be able to structure the gift so that you reduce your taxes by as much as $700 (or even more). However, at the end of the day you still have less wealth than if you had kept your money and paid the taxes.

I am not saying that taxes have no affect on donations. Taxes often drive the timing of gifts. However, it is important to note that the decision to part with money is a difficult one for most people. Even after an individual decides they want to make a donation they often stall on actually going through with the gift. It often takes the approach of the year’s end for donors to finally give up the gift qualifying for that year’s tax deduction.

I get plenty of phone calls from people who are interested in setting up some sort of charitable vehicle for the sole purpose of generating a tax deduction. But once they learn how foundations, charitable trusts, and donor-advised funds work, they are always disappointed and end up not setting one up. The idea that wealthy individuals who are sophisticated about money and taxes would give money away just to generate a tax deduction simply does not make any sense.

Comment: “Mother Teresa once said, ‘give ‘til [it] hurts you.’ Only giving which hurts the giver in some way is supreme.”

The idea that goodness comes from pain is deeply rooted in some religions. Personally, I believe, as I wrote in my essay, that humans are hardwired to enjoy the act of helping others. Feeling happy and good about helping others is a sign of positive mental health. Needing to feel pain to feel good is called masochism.

I also don’t believe that all donations are rooted in self-actualization. Certainly, many people (myself included) enjoy the social approval that comes from our peers when we make a gift. But this isn’t bad. This is part of the hardwiring that encourages humans to be social animals.

There is one criticism of philanthropy I find compelling: the idea that some gifts are motivated by a reciprocal benefit that is paid in non-monetary terms—for instance, a gift could be given to a university with the hope that it will improve the donor’s children’s chance of acceptance. These kinds of gifts are absolutely real. But they are a small minority of philanthropic gifts. Since it is illegal for a donor to claim an income tax deduction for a gift made in exchange for something of value, these kinds of gifts are a problem of our tax code, not a problem with philanthropy.

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.




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  • BY Bill Huddleston, CFC Expert

    ON June 27, 2008 10:38 AM

    Anonymous Combined Federal Campaign (CFC) Donors are Altruistic Givers

    The Combined Federal Campaign (CFC) is the Federal government’s workplace giving campaign, and through it Federal public servants have donated more than $1 billion to thousands of local, national and international non-profits over the past five years.  CFC monies are unrestricted, reliable and predictable.

    CFC Anonymous Donors - Two Categories

    For the donor, in addition to the CFC being the most donor friendly (by far) means of giving to a charity they care about, the donor has two different ways to remain anonymous.  On a CFC pledge card, there is a check box that asks “Do you authorize the release of your name and contact information (address & e-mail) to the charities that you have donated to?”    If yes, please put a check in the box and sign the release statement.

    The feature of remaining anonymous to the charities that they care about is actually one of the favorite aspects of the CFC campaign to many Federal donors.  There are no studies that show what the percentage is, but having seen thousands of pledge cards during my Federal career, it would not surprise me if it’s above 50%.  This is where a big disconnect comes in between being truly donor friendly, (which most non-profits espouse) and their initial reaction to truly anonymous donors—- which is almost always to be irritated because they do not know who they are.

    If they actually thought about it minute, they would realize that anonymous donors are some of their biggest champions, they obviously know enough about the organization to give to it, and they just don’t want the additional mailings, etc.  In many cases, they are probably seeing information about that non-profit on their website, in community meetings, etc.

    This is one category of anonymous donor, where the non-profit does not get any information about the donor, but the Federal employee’s colleagues may know that he or she donated, and participated in the CFC campaign (they would not know which charities or what amount was given unless the giver told them, that information remains confidential).

    The second type of anonymous giving that is available to the CFC donor, is that to give in the campaign but in a completely confidential way, where even the campaign coordinators have no idea of any amount that was given.  Federal donors have the option of asking for a “CFC Confidential Contribution” envelope, and if they choose they can give this way, although a very small percentage of donors use this option (less than 1%).

    Yes, these donors can take a tax deduction if they itemize on their return, but I submit this case as an example of altrusitic giving.  The main reason people give is that care about others, not that it advances their own economic self-interest.  For the CFC anonymous donor they are the only one that knows if they gave at all, and how much they gave.

    Don’t forget, there’s a reason that economics is called the “dismal science.”  One of my favorite quotes is this one by Bobby Kennedy (April 1968):

    “Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. . . . Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”


    Bill Huddleston, CFC Expert

    P.S.  If you want to learn why the CFC is the most donor friendly means of contributing to non-profits, please go to http://www.cfcfundraising and request the CFC special report.  Thanks.

  • Varden Hadfield's avatar

    BY Varden Hadfield

    ON June 27, 2008 12:52 PM

    You make an excellent point, and one that I think is well understood by anyone who has worked closely with major donors for very long.  Among my colleagues and professionals associated with major gifts, this is not even a matter of much debate.

    My experience working with major donors for the past 10 years matches well with your experience.  Who says altruism has to result in a real neutral or even painful result to the donor in order to be pure?  As Kristen Renwick Monroe discusses in her book, “The Heart of Altruism,”  even people who risk their lives to save others often derive personal satisfaction from a lifestyle of concern for other people. 

    I also agree with the assertion that in general you can’t have a tax-deduction situation in which the donor ends up with more money than they started with—at least in income tax, current lifetime gift situations. 

    The estate tax may be a possible exception to this rule—although I still agree that in general most estate donors are still primarily motivated by a desire to help others.  There are sometimes ways to structure planned gifts to avoid estate, income, and capital gains taxes, increase income for the donor while they’re alive, and also end up with more money for the children than the family would have if they had kept all the assets and paid estate and capital gains taxes.  Occassionally people can become interested initially by these tax incentives, but then eventually realize great personal satisfaction as they realize they’re also blessing other people. 

    Sometimes observers also assume that near-immortality through a naming opportunity can be a significant motivator for a gift.  This may be possible for some donors, but I’ve also worked with several high-porofile naming situations in which the gift and its’ positive impact on others was the donor’s primary interest, and the naming opportunity of the endowment or building was promoted by the charity.  Many donors, especially high-profile ones, are extremely resistant to their name being listed or others being aware of their giving—for fear they’ll be hassled with countless additional requests for funds.

    It is common practice for organizations to produce lists of donors who give at smaller amounts—on patio stones, bricks, plaques, and brochures.  But, I wonder if there is any research that actually demonstrates this induces people to give more than they otherwise would have.  I still suspect you’d find these donors’ connection to the cause is far more important than having their name listed somewhere. 

    Thanks for keeping us grounded in reality!

  • BY Sean Stannard-Stockton

    ON June 30, 2008 08:30 AM

    Thanks for the comment Varden. It is interesting that most of the people who work with high net worth donors and the donors themselves agree with my comments (and yours). Yet most people in general do not. I’ve also noted that even high net worth donors will often make the “it is just for the tax deduction” assumption when they are discussing people with even more wealth than them. I think this is why so many people doubt Buffett’s motivations (not many people have more money then him!

  • BY Bettina Curtis

    ON March 25, 2011 01:57 AM

    People have their own reasons why they donate or give to charity whether monthly, weekly or yearly. But most of them really wanted to help without expecting anything in return. Some people give because they want to expose themselves might as well their business as well because they believe that it’s a win-win situation to do that. Their aim is still to help but they want to become known as well.

  • BY Joanne Fagan, Eva's Village Communications and Gra

    ON September 27, 2011 04:44 PM

    I think a great book to help shield light on why people give to charity is Seider’s book “Shelter: Where Harvard Meets the Homeless” that looks at the impact of volunteering on Harvard students & what volunteering and community service can provide in terms of personality growth.  In one sense, giving money is much easier than giving time, but I think the benefits are the same. It’s just that when you give your time, you’re getting more of the same benefits (e.g., a feeling that you’ve really helped someone) plus extra benefits, such as becoming closer with others who are helping. 

    At Eva’s Village, we run one of the most active volunteer organizations in the state: we have an active individual volunteer program and a corporate volunteer program, called “Bond, Boost, & Build: Team-building opportunities for corporate volunteers.”

    We offer these volunteer programs not only because it greatly assists us in our many charitable activities but also because corporate volunteer studies (see Cathleen Wild’s report, “Corporate volunteer programs: Benefits to business,” 1993), and our own experience, shows a wide range of benefits of volunteering such as an increased sense of well being, an increase in self-confidence, a decrease in personal depression, and stronger group bonding (one of the main benefits of our “Bond, Boost, & Build” volunteer program).

    In the end, we give our time and our money because, in giving, we find that we received as much, if not more, than what we gave.

  • People will give on charity because this is the fastest way to help people, helping people with any return is amazing.

  • BY Find a Useful Charity Gift

    ON March 17, 2015 04:08 AM

    This is a really interesting topic. I think people usually feel good about doing something positive for another person. Giving to charity can be so rewarding because you know that you’re helping others in need. Thanks for a wonderful post!

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