Why do we give to charity?

Why do we give to charity?

Let’s talk about giving. Cynics say we give to make ourselves feel good, optimists think it’s to make the world a better place, religion says God(s) told us to, and Marxists say we give to mask the oppression of the proletariat. (Jeeze, things are always escalating on our blogs…)

There is a wide range of reasons why people choose to give their money, possessions, and time to others. That being said, we have parsed out some general themes for what drives giving (amongst Americans at least):

  1. Social conscience - a feeling of moral obligation to help others

  2. Direct connection to a cause - for example, a family member passing away from cancer inspires giving to cancer research

  3. Feeling of impact - being able to participate in making the world better, feeling the power of our actions

  4. Trust in an organization - knowing that the organization does good work and want to support it

Each of these motivations certainly has its own merits but we’re going to make the case here for the importance of # 1 - giving based on our social conscience and moral obligation.

To do this we’re going to use a terrible thought experiment.

Consider you are walking down the street and see a man experiencing homelessness, asking for change outside a liquor store, he reeks of alcohol.

You have exactly $20 in your pocket and your choice is either to give it to the man or not. What might your thoughts look like based on each of the motivations we laid out?

  • Direct connection - unless you were homeless yourself, you might not judge the man to be the “best” recipient of your $20 and would rather donate it to a more important cause - combating climate change, a cause which the man will indirectly benefit from anyways.

  • Feeling of impact - You probably wouldn’t be sticking around to verify the impact of your $20 and so might decide to donate to a nonprofit that is able to quantify your donation. This way you know your money went towards providing 4 meals to a family in need, for example.

  • Trust in an organization - Let’s say you’re pretty sure the man isn’t going to spend your $20 donation anywhere other than inside the liquor store behind him. Sort of a waste of $20, so giving to a vetted homeless shelter might be a better bet.

Is there anything wrong with any of these approaches? We would say nine out of ten times there isn’t. The differentiating factor in the tenth time isn’t even a matter of wrong or right but different. Because giving based on our social conscience is a different kind of giving compared to the other three motivations. In our thought experiment it might look something like this:

  • That man could probably use $20, I definitely have $20 to give, he might use it to buy liquor, he might not. I should give him the $20.

The focus, in this case, is on the man experiencing homelessness as a human being in charge of his own destiny and in need of immediate help. This type of giving might even remind us more than any other that we’re all in this whole human experiment together and while transparency, relevancy, and measurable impact of course matter, sometimes we need to give just to give.

If this is all coming off as rather preachy you definitely have a point. But we’re making this case because giving for giving’s sake seems to have gone out of fashion among younger folk. We think this is a shame because our moral duty to give is one of the most powerful signs of universal human solidarity. It’s putting our money where our mouths are in terms of betting on our collective success, without regard to how good it makes us feel.

So, next time you’re out and about we hope you’ll consider that spontaneous, unmeasurable act of giving. It might have a more measurable impact than you think.

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