Why Do People Give to Charity?

The first guest post last week from Charles Bronfman & Jeffrey Solomon asked readers why they gave to charity. The question sparked 52 reader comments over the rest of the week.

In the next few days, I’m going to explore some of the conflicting views that the question exposed. But first I’d like to offer a reprint of a post I wrote in February 2008, which currently ranks #1 on Google for the phrase “Why do people give to charity?” Interestingly, I wrote the post as a contribution to that month’s Giving Carnival, a project I started in early 2007. The topic of the February 2008 Carnival hosted by Jason Dick on his A Small Change blog was “What motivates giving?”, the same question posed by Bronfman and Solomon. You can read all the submissions on this topic to that month’s Giving Carnival by clicking here.

At the time I wrote:

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 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.

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.

My post generated a number of responses, especially from people who argued that wealthy donors only give to claim a tax deduction or who pointed to the economic theory that giving is a result of the “warm glow” or internal satisfaction that individuals derive from giving. I responded to those objections in a post you can read here.


  1. Jeff Mowatt says:

    Sean, Though it may not answer the question it this concept of self-actualization which is for us central to the idea of a more inclusive system of economics. In this Maslow was one of the major influences.

    Another major influences on the concept of a people-centered system of economics, was Carl R Rogers who described the Person-Centered.approach to counselling.

    The essence is in being honest, dropping the facade of an expert to allow a client to drop defensive behaviour and realise who he truly is. Under these conditions the human spirit might flourish.

    “Carl Rogers describes how he soon started to realize one of the core beliefs of Person Centered Counseling, i.e. that the client has within themselves the ability to move towards wholeness (which is also referred to as the ability to achieve “self actualization”. He realised that the human spirit has a capacity to flourish when given the correct conditions.

    “Now, at the opening of the 21st century, Rogers’ ideas are deeply embedded in all understanding of human behavior, and their revolutionary and fundamentally democratic implications have become part of our contemporary way of life. The faith that relationships built on honesty, mutual respect, empathy, and the unconditional affirmation of a person’s inherent tendency to move towards individual self-fulfillment and social harmony provide the essential substrate for all human growth and healing– once heresy within a mechanistic psychology, with no faith in the resources of the human spirit–can now be found in every arena of life.”


    As person-centered counselliing had been a heresy to psychology, so was the concept of a people-centered model of economics until very recently. In its simplest interpretation of wealth measured in terms of human progress, rather than debt based on manipulating numbers.



  2. Sean,

    Thank you for this very thought provoking piece. I think most of us would like to think of our giving as being motivated by Maslow’s top tier and it would be a worthwhile personal exercise to think about our individual motivations. I actually was doing that today during a walk on this gorgeous NJ day. My husband and I have a giving strategy that involves both giving in relationship to our means and distribution among categories of interest to us. But this morning I was struck by Pablo Eisenberg’s article in the Wall Street Journal – “What’s wrong with charitable giving & How to fix it.” One of the statistics he noted was that not more than 3% to 5% of all foundation money goes to organizations serving the poor and other needy groups. It made me think about my own distribution of giving and what motivates me and perhaps it needs dusting off and update. I think some of it may be motivated by something coming back to me. Ouch.

    Your post will add to my own soul searching on this subject.