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.