Why Do People Give to Charity?

Jason Dick, who blogs at A Small Change, is hosting this month’s Giving Carnival. He’s also created a Google Group for the Giving Carnival to make it easy for people to stay up to date on future events and sign up to host (I’m amazed how the Carnival has grown since I started it with a handful of contributions in Jan 2007 when we debated the Gates Foundation investment policy and socially responsible investing!).

The premise of the February 2008 edition of the Giving Carnival is “What motivates giving?”.

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 to the full community of life). Humans want to feel a sense of connection and a sense of purpose to life. Giving (time, money, 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 motived 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.

All of this is my thoughts on what motivations humans to give. 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.

One Comment

  1. Mehreen says:

    Very well written! =)