So why do people give to charity? What are their intrinsic motivations for giving to any charitable cause?

Economic benefits such as tax savings are much less a reason than most people realize. Kim Klein in the November/December 2006 issue of Grassroots Fundraising Journal states:

Most money given away in the private sector comes from individuals, and most of the gifts are from middle class, working class and poor people. That’s most people: 91 percent of Americans earn less than $100,000 per year, and 70 percent of adults give away money. More than half receive no tax benefit for their giving because they file a short tax form.

So while your organization must be clear about the tax deductible status of your organization, this is clearly not a motivation for most people. You cannot lead a campaign by “offering people an opportunity to give and have a tax deductible donation.” It’s a rather lame argument, much like a car salesman saying “I’m giving you the opportunity to buy a new car.”

More than anything, donors are motivated by thier own experiences and values. A review of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs reveals many of the reasons that people donate fall into the higher categories of love/belonging/social needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the top 5 reasons that people generally donate to charitable causes:

1. Personal Experience

Donors will often feel an affinity for a cause for a variety reasons related to their life experiences. This is most evident in causes that relate to health. If someone has been diagnosed at some time in his or her life with a serious illness, or one of their close friends or family members has, they are acutely aware of the needs of patients. For example, people who have had cancer often participate in events such as the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life and the Komen Race for the Cure. By donating they are able to contribute to a cause that they themselves have been affected by or honor their loved ones who were.

Many other causes attract support because of a donors past experience. Just today a friend who works at the local Girl Scout Council announced that because of recent flooding in the area their camp had to be shut down. All the remaining weeks of summer camp were canceled and the main building is now just a shell.

While I was in Camp Fire rather than Girl Scouts, summer camp was one of the formative events of my childhood. I went to Camp Fire camp for four years and to our church camp every year until high school graduation. So when Rachel told us about the devastation at the camp I was immediately emotionally stirred. I imagined it was my childhood camp that was destroyed! While I may never set foot on this particular camp that was damaged, a donation will help them rebuild to ensure that children have the same opportunity that I did.

2. They want to make a difference.

People often say they donate or volunteer in order to “make a difference.” This phrase means many different things to many different people.

Some people want to make an impact in the lives of an individual person. They would like to see a lasting and tangible change as the result of their contribution. They may not even be concerned with how long this change takes, just so long as it does take place. Other people want to see an immediate impact, for example food distributed to those who are hungry and other types of emergency aid. Still others have a long term vision for a societal change they want to see take place.

Another element of “making a difference” is simply a grateful spirit that wishes to give back to society.

3. They want to do something active about a problem or take a stand on a particular issue.

Mal Warwick, in his book How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters describes this one quite well:

Today we are bombarded by information about the world’s problems through a wide variety of channels. Although we may isolate ourselves…we can’t escape from knowing about misery, injustice, and wasted human potential. Often we feel powerless in the face of this grim reality. Charity offers us a way to respond.

Many social problems seem too large for any one person to make a difference. Making a donation gives the donor personal power over a complex issue that is much larger than himself. It’s one way that we can feel more in control of our world.

Making financial donations is also a way to take a stand on an issue. Political candidates, lobbying organizations and hot button issue groups all receive contributions from people who are voting with their dollars.

4. They are motivated by personal recognition and benefits.

Mal Warwick, again in his book How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters says, “You appeal to donors’ egos – or to their desire to heighten their public image – when you offer to recognize their gifts in an open and tangible way.”

While the psychological reasons and desires for each of the following motivations are somewhat different, I’m putting them all in this recognition and benefits category:

1. Many people like to be publicly acknowledged for their gifts to charity. On the high end of this scale is a building naming rights program. Donor recognition plaques large and small serve to acknowledge gifts. Sometimes just a simple “thank you” is all a person needs. All of these fulfill a psychological and emotional need to be recognized.

2. People donate because you give them something tangible in return. If someone doesn’t have a strong interest in the cause they may be more likely to make a donation or other type of support when they get something of value in return. This is where special events and product sales often come in. Other times the “thank you gift” is just that extra push that convinces someone to go ahead and donate.

2. Donating allows them to associate with a well known person or social set. The traditional black tie gala is one example of instances where socialites may buy a ticket or table just to “see and be seen.” Other times people may make a donation to a cause that a celebrity endorses, as a roundabout way of being associated with someone they admire. Celebrity endorsement often provides additional trustworthiness to the organization, so the donor will lend support because they become more convinced of the group’s worthiness.

5. Giving is a good thing to do.

While all of the above reasons and many others may be true, there is no doubt that the majority of people simply believe in the value of giving itself. Some give out of an accepted moral or spiritual obligation. Others subconsciously know that it just feels good to give.

Jeff Brooks in his blog post Yet again: scientists show that giving is good says:

Giving is good. It just feels good. Scientists will back me up on that. A recent NIH study looked into people’s brains with MRIs while they made decisions to give….Dr. Jorge Moll, the lead researcher on the study, said what they saw “strongly supports the existence of ‘warm glow’ at a biological level. It helps convince people that doing good can make them feel good; altruism therefore doesn’t need to be ONLY sacrifice.”

As non profit leaders and fundraisers, we face many struggles in seeing our vision fulfilled. A belief in the basic goodness of people and their generosity reminds us of why we started this work in the first place and gives that extra bit of energy to keep going.

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Posted on 15 August 2007

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