Why do you give to charity?

House of peanut notes in her recent review of All the money in the world that her reasons for giving to charity are different than the ones in Vanderkam’s book.

Vanderkam, she says, talks about the “selfish joy” that giving gives to people.  However, house of peanut “couldn’t relate to the idea of getting personal satisfaction or pleasure out of giving to charity.”

Instead, house of peanut says she gives to charity because it is the “right thing to do.”

Economists have many theories for why people give to charity.  From my reading of the Vanderkam chapter, she subscribes to the “warm glow” theory of charitable giving.  In this theory, people give to charity because it makes them feel warm and fuzzy to do so.

Another theory is altruism– that people want a specific level of public goods to be provided, and if they government isn’t providing, then they step up.  (Under this theory, people would *prefer* taxes to charitable giving, because charitable goods are under-provided because of the free-rider problem, but in reality, they don’t tend to prefer taxes.)

Prestige is another theory– people give because they want people to know that they give because it makes them feel superior.  Related to this idea is one of social cohesion– you give because it provides a sense of community with other people interested in that cause.  Giving greases social wheels, so to speak.

Yet another theory is one in which people give because they expect something back.  This idea is part of “social insurance”.  The idea is that if you give to your church when times are good, they will give back to you when times are bad.

And, of course, there’s giving because it provides power and helps you shape agendas.  You can see a lot of that this year with the SuperPACs funding campaign ads and controlling local elections from a national scale.

There are many many other theories of charitable giving, not just from economics but from other social science disciplines.  We haven’t nailed this one down yet, though there is ample evidence for the “warm glow” theory and not so much for pure altruism.  But in reality the reasons are probably multi-faceted.

I give to charity for several reasons:
1. I’m a soft touch when it comes to stories about hungry kids or kids not getting education or kitties not having homes. Giving money helps the crying stop (is that feeling warm glow?)
2. Sometimes our donations actually make a difference (see local private school)
3. Sometimes donating is in our best selfish interest (see: donating to alma mater to get USNews rating up, donating to DC’s class to get extra activities)

Update:  eemusings with her reasons.

If you give, why do you give?

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34 Responses to “Why do you give to charity?”

  1. NoTrustFund Says:

    I give for several reasons: it feels like te right thing to do, it reminds me how much I have and how lucky and fortunate I have been in life, I like to contribute financially to non profits I am involved with in other ways. And with my alma mater it makes me so happy to give to the scholarship fund as they were so generous with me as an undergrad and I hate the idea of a well deserving 18 year old not being able to attend this school just because his or her parents do not have a lot of money.

    Thanks for reminding me I have a few checks to write!

  2. Michelle Says:

    I give because I believe in the cause. Right now I donate to an animal shelter, a pet food pantry and the United Way. However, we have significantly cut back in our United Way donations because of how corrupt our area United Way is. I plan on giving to a food pantry instead.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Would you say you it makes you feel warm and fuzzy (warm glow) or that if the government provided for the cause with your tax dollars you’d cut back on your giving (suggesting altruism as a motive)?

  3. First Gen American Says:

    I give today, because I received butt-loads of scholarships in college. Without financial aid, I wouldn’t have been in the position I’m in today which is someone with an above average education and household income. It just feels like the right thing to do to pay it forward now that I have the means to do so. I feel that if I help other people it makes our community stronger as a whole. In a sense even that is self serving because being in a great community is obviously better than living in a depressed and violent one. I’ve lived in both and I’d rather not go back to the old one where it’s a dog eat dog world.

    Other charitable giving is totally self serving (doing things at my kid’s school, access fund, etc, all have a personal benefit that someone in my family enjoys).

  4. Tinkering Theorist Says:

    I give to charity because it is the right thing to do, so I feel bad (meaning, I feel bad for the people who could have been helped but also I don’t feel as much like I’m a responsible, society-contributing adult) if I don’t. Does that count as glow? When we have some roots in the community, and when the kids are out of daycare, I expect to give more and perhaps then I can give to something that I really believe in and feel glowy about. Additional income doesn’t really do much for me anymore, except that I can move the extra money around (for instance, to college funds for the kids or charity, or to something really unnecessary like a fancy car). I would prefer higher taxes than giving to charity, but I could only stop giving if people around the world would be at a level where virtually everyone can feel safe and well nourished and small children would be treated well and educated so they can grow into productive adults. The latter I think would make my life easier. But it seems like we won’t be having that much in taxes anytime soon.

  5. Grace Says:

    I tend to give to smaller, more off-beat charities that I suspect won’t appeal to the ‘big donors.’ I want my money to mean something, not just be another drop in the ocean. So right now it goes to Clarion (a science fiction writers’ workshop I attended back in the dark ages) scholarships, the private high school for kids with ADHD that saved one of my daughter’s academic life, the local food bank that needed money for volunteer drivers’ gas, the clothes closet for foster kids, and a Jewish water project in a Guatamalan village (cuz two of my Jewish friends spent Christmas building the system).

  6. Alyssa Says:

    I give to charity for several reasons: it’s the right thing to do (we’re doing very well for our age bracket and want to help out others), for selfish reasons (we want the building that houses our daycare to stay open), heart-string pulling ads (I give a monthly donation to the World Wildlife Foundation because of sad looking tiger kittens in their ad). Really, though it all comes down to the fact that we want to give back, but we don’t have the time but do have the money. We do choose our charities based on what’s important to us or on our experiences (for example, our son had a couple of hospital stays in his first month, so we’re more likely to give to charities along those lines).

  7. bogart Says:

    Interesting question. I guess I see pros to both taxes and giving. I mostly feel pretty good about the taxes I pay (and am scandalized by how low they are overall), with some substantive evidence to support this claim (e.g. my mom suggested we challenge the valuation of our house with the real-estate decline and I replied, “I feel that we get great value for our local tax dollars” and didn’t challenge anything). OTOH, clearly there exists no perfect political system and there will always be “bad” decisions, fraud, and assorted inefficiencies. And I may want to provide for causes/organizations that are not popular.

    That said, a lot of our giving is pretty mundanely uncontroversial (United Way, Heiffer). I think it’s a sense of wanting to help those with less, and an awareness that money matters (I like to volunteer and see value in volunteering, but am strapped for time and aware of considerable inefficiencies that can exist in volunteering). And yes, sometimes self-motivated. Not so much now, but when DS starts public school in the fall.

  8. Linda Says:

    I definitely give money to “shape agendas,” but I also give money to at least one “warm glow” charity: the local animal shelter. Domesticated animals are powerless to control their own destinities so we have to take care of them.

    My agenda-shaping donations go to Planned Parenthood, Doctors wtihout Borders, and Habitat for Humanity. Would I give less money if there was more government aid available for the issues these charities address? Maybe. It’s hard to say since I can’t ever foresee a day when people will stop making so many babies (unplanned or otherwise), and until that day there will continue to be power struggles over resources that lead to literal wars and figurative ones (such as the election-cycle stuff going on right now).

    • Linda Says:

      Oh, I forgot to mention Heifer International, too! It’s a great charity I support every year. Nice that it merges two things I care about a lot: animals and empowering people to help themselves. Thanks for the reminder, bogart!

  9. Anandi Raman Creath (@anandi) Says:

    Thanks for the link! Part of why I think it’s the “right thing to do” is that we have been so blessed with good fortune and feel like we should help those who aren’t. But it’s still not the warm fuzzies. Interesting that there are so many theories about this.

  10. Lili@creativesavv Says:

    I give because I can’t stand to see fellow human beings suffer. Where you’re born, who your parents are, what gifts you’ve been given, these are all things none of us had any control over. I’ve been blessed, to be a blessing.

  11. ianqui Says:

    I think it’s a combination of both warm glow and altruism for me, but maybe more of the latter. There’s also selfishness–we give to the National Parks Foundation and to the Nature Conservancy because we’ve enjoyed their services many times before. We give to food banks and public school charities in NYC because we want to improve the community we live in. I think there’s something of the guilt factor too–I’d love to donate my time, but I don’t have enough of it, so I give money. But I do have to admit that I feel a sense of satisfaction when I see our spreadsheet at the end of the year with a relatively long list of organizations that we give to (some in biggish amounts, and others, smaller ones).

    Right now this article is still bothering me so much that I’m thinking about finding a PTA in the South Bronx or somewhere like that to give $500 or even $1K to–it would make so much more difference there than to my son’s eventual elementary school (which we’ll also give to, of course).

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      You can also give to impoverished school districts through Donors Choose. (I did give directly to a NYC impoverished district a couple years back after a similar NYTimes article. The kids needed pencils or something. One thing to keep in mind if you itemize and give directly to a low SES PTA or district is that chances are they won’t send you a reminder that you donated for tax purposes or even a receipt, so keep track of it yourself.)

  12. chacha1 Says:

    I give because I have more money (to spare) than time. The organization I do volunteer with is USA Dance, Inc. (member of the Olympic committee). The other causes I would care to volunteer with, are not causes I can easily give time to … so, money. Of late my donations have been chiefly to Nature Conservancy, California State Parks Foundation, National Parks Foundation, and Sempervirens Fund. I used to give quite a bit to animal welfare but now consider protecting wild land probably fills that need as well (or better).

    I do still give occasionally to the Moonridge Zoo, a small and perpetually broke Alpine zoo here in California which often receives orphaned or injured mountain animals, and to Alley Cat Allies, which educates and funds for trap-neuter-return management of feral cat colonies. Once my own financial situation is a trifle more solid I will go back to giving to Heifer and Planned Parenthood, and maybe to Habitat for Humanity.

    This is definitely about warm fuzzies for me. I only discuss giving when directly asked, I don’t proselytize, I don’t solicit. I don’t have any hostages to the future and I don’t think the human race is necessarily more worth saving than the mountain lion, so my motivations are chiefly along the lines of “how can we best keep people from ruining too much more of Earth.”

  13. Meredith Says:

    I agree with Grace–sometimes it’s nicer to give to lesser-known charities b/c they don’t get all the PR of the larger. While sometimes it’s tough (budgetwise), I believe we are called to give because we have been given to…

  14. Debbie M Says:

    Most of what I give is for fairness—I have more than what I need, so I donate some of it to those who are less lucky. About 1/3 of this is used to reduce poverty (helping those with worse finances than me), about 1/3 to help the environment (helping those with less power over their environment than me, namely, plants and animals and less desctructive people) and 1/3 to fight abuse, torture, and pain (helping those who are way less comfortable than I am). Oh, another thing in this category is subsidizing family members for once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that they can’t afford like family trips to Disney World and Europe. So this best fits the “right thing to do” category. There’s also a hint of “selfish joy” or “warm glow” except for the part where I know I could afford much, much more while still living relatively well and except for the part where I can’t stand reading about these issues (besides family opportunities). So I settle for donating less than I can afford but more than average. I called it “fairness” but it’s also “guilt” because my relative affluence is mostly luck (I was born in a first-world country to nonabusive parents, look like the majority race/religion, have not been drafted into any wars, have not had long-term painful conditions, etc.) My biggest worry is that my donations aren’t actually helping. Actually, my biggest worry is that they might actually be making things worse. I try to find organizations that are not corrupt and that give people a choice (I prefer land buying over legislation, for example).

    I also give a small amount for paying back for things I have received and/or continue to receive. This category includes things like public radio, public TV, the local wildflower center, my neighborhood association, and it could include my alma maters if they weren’t so pushy. This is the opposite of the “social insurance”—I am already getting or have already received the benefits. I leave social insurance to the government.

    A new category for me is for encouraging other things that I want but that aren’t at all important compared to fighting against starvation, environmental ruination, and torture. So far I’ve helped finance the opening of a bulk-only grocery store, but I’m also considering ways to encourage bike and pedestrian paths and the building of a planetarium in my town. So that’s definitely the “power and agenda shaping” category.

  15. Funny about Money Says:

    Hm. Why? To support a cause I believe in. Moi, I don’t do “prestige” or “warm fuzzy.” When I can afford to give, I do it anonymously whenever possible. Since I don’t earn enough between Social Security and adjunct teaching to pay all the bills each month, generally I prefer to give time rather than money. Unfortunately, though, about half the time that’s not really what’s needed. ;-)

  16. Que Sera Says:

    I give because I have. I’ve gotten so much and want others to have some too. I’m partial to education causes and giving items to others who need them more locally. I always give anonymously too.

  17. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    I donate to my prep school because I am so grateful for the amazing influence my education there had on my life.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I actually don’t… for one thing I’m still irritated that they sent one of their first fundraising letters to Dr. and Mrs. when I was the one with the doctorate (DH got his a year later). (They also didn’t let me keep the title Rear Admiral #1 at 666 Leavemethehella Lane.) I don’t know if #2 donates or not. I do donate to my college.

      • Anandi Raman Creath (@anandi) Says:

        Hah, I’m glad this sort of thing bothers someone else. I actually wrote a scathing email to my college re: the fact that they addressed all mail to Mr and Mrs (my husband’s name), despite the fact that we BOTH graduated from that same place. I’m not Mrs. Husband ANYWHERE. I hate that particular convention, because I actually have a name, dammit. They finally changed it :)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Wow, you’d think ‘Tech would know better! Or at least would try harder given how few women students they have compared to their main competitors.

        I don’t actually mind when DC’s school calls me Mrs. Married (since we live in a red state and Married is DC’s last name… I also go by “DC’s mom”), or when DH’s elderly rural relatives send Christmas cards to Mr. and Mrs. Married. But professionally, I am not Mrs. anyone. I’m Ms, Dr, or Prof, and Maiden to boot.

        It probably wouldn’t have bugged me so much if they hadn’t assumed that DH had a doctorate he did not yet have and assumed I didn’t have one that I had actually earned. (The first year post PhD one tends to sign up for frequent flyer miles under “Dr” and put “Dr” on the driver’s license and so on… it wears off.)

    • Janette Says:

      I donate to my prep school for the same reason. I do not donate to my college.

  18. Cloud Says:

    I give to causes I believe in, mostly around trying to give everyone an equal chance in life and/or make sure no one starves or gets blown up by land mines. I’ve never really tried to parse out whether I’m getting a warm fuzzy or just doing what I think is right. They seem really close to me- if I didn’t give, I’d feel like I was doing wrong.

  19. Mom2boy Says:

    I gave money to Haiti after Pat Robertson said god was punishing Haiti. I figured my money was a form of god’s apology for pat Robertson.

    I give to NPR bc I listen to it fairly often. Seems more like a subscription than charitable giving.

    Is giving time the same as giving money? I have a pro bono requirement I just finished and an on going suggested requirement that I can cover with a check for $350.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Is giving time the same as giving money?

      Yes and no. Economists understand a lot less why people give time. All the econ theories apply, BUT there’s also all sorts of sociology that’s probably going on as well. (People are bored, people do it for work experience, people do it to socialize etc.)

      That reminds me of another giving theory I’d forgotten about… the “social insurance” theory– it posits that people will sometimes give to their churches, for example, when times are good because they expect to be helped out when times are bad. The same thing might describe some kinds of volunteering, the kind that relates to community building. These fit into larger gift-exchange theories.

  20. minhus Says:

    Interesting discussion. I think I give somewhat out of warm fuzzies, but mostly out of guilt for having so much more than so much of the world. I still have problems balancing giving against my own financial goals. MPOW drives me batty because it’s constantly requesting money for either internal campaigns, or outside ones, so I don’t give there.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I do wonder if removing guilt is really the same thing as warm glow… sort of in the way we might think of paying off debt as being the same as saving. It’s hard to say… my guess is that (male) economists rarely feel guilty about anything so it never crossed their minds that a warm glow could also be lessening bad feelings.

  21. Personal Finance Success - Motiviation to have personal finance success Says:

    [...] from Grumpy Rumblings has an article Why do you give to charity? and says “Nicole and Maggie discuss different economic theories about why people give to [...]


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