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, the social context of other people’s giving is overshadowed by the satisfaction of one’s own giving when considering how much to give.
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 assumes that helping others is somehow separate from helping ourselves. Humans are communal animals. Without “others” we find life intolerable. If a person sacrifices themselves for another, it is not simple “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 a fact of life. It is hardwired into our DNA.
The narrative of philanthropy is dominated by the concept that people who give do so to get something for themselves. I cannot tell you how many references I’ve seen to people saying that Warren Buffett’s gift to the Gates Foundation was a way for him to exploit a loophole to avoid taxes. But I think that narrative is false. Humans are interconnected with each other whether they like it of 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.