Why Do We Give? Does It Matter?

It is not uncommon to receive calls from journalists writing articles about philanthropy, but not so typical to receive those calls from undergraduates writing for school newspapers. Yet a few weeks back I received such a call from, shall I say, a fairly well-known school in the Boston area. The question, paraphrased, was “why would a philanthropist choose to give money to our already wealthy and prestigious university when there are so many other needs in the world?”

I recently gave a talk to the leadership team of a large international institution about philanthropy trends. During the question and answer period, the same question was asked: what do we know about donor motivation? [In this case, the questioner’s own motivation was pretty obvious!]

At an invitational gathering on philanthropic giving convened by a couple of prominent wealth managers, their question was a variation on the theme: what might wealth managers do to encourage more giving by their clients? Should they appeal to underlying altruism, ego, guilt assuaging, public recognition, prestige, tax benefits, legacy, prudent use of personal assets… ?

A recent set of research studies is also noteworthy. These field studies examine the impact of philanthropic giving on the person who gives. A colleague friend, for example, is soon to publish her book on the happiness which accrues to altruists. Sometimes even in the face of personal tragedy, the act of giving can bring joy and renewed meaning. Other studies have demonstrated that personal well-being, good health, and social adjustment are all connected with philanthropic behavior. It is an intriguing range of thought.

As you realize, these are not questions I have to deal with in my work. People I work with or teach are already givers. They – or their parents/grandparents/great grandparents/employers – already made that decision. I come into the picture to help people do their giving more effectively or wisely. Motivation is only relevant to help them make decisions that will be gratifying and consistent with their goals and values.

However, I am always concerned when a questioner tries to reduce charitable behavior to a single motivation or benefit. Such reductionism may be appealing to those trying to decode the secret to encourage giving, raise money, or invest strategically, but I have never met a single individual whose own behavior can be reduced to a single motivation or benefit. Tax concerns may provide a structure, but philanthropy is not the only way to limit taxes. Public recognition may appeal to some, but there are plenty of other ways to receive public recognition. Legacy or family involvement may play a role but there are lots of ways to engage a family and to solidify a legacy. Each of these may play a role in why someone may choose but none is either predictive or singular.

People are complex. Relationships are complex. Cultures are complex. Motivations are often inscrutable. What matters much more than why is generosity itself. I often wonder: if one were to find that ego or hubris or guilt were proven to be a motivator for a particular philanthropist, would that make his or her generosity less useful or constructive? For those who want me to be precise: No, I am not arguing that green-washing forgives or exempts abuse, crime, or ethics violations. Philanthropy cannot buy exoneration. But beyond that, people’s behavior matters more than their intentions.

And that is as it should be. There are many matters of concern to philanthropy that merit public discourse – among them: the relative roles of private philanthropy and public policy; whether certain philanthropy is more admirable or just or responsive than others; what accountability should funders and grantees have to each other and to the public; and more. These discussions can really make a difference. But the discussion of motivation is better suited to the research realm than the value of philanthropy.

Fortunately, most people choose to give, many quite generously, without having to declare their underlying motivation or intention, or for us having to understand them. And that, I believe, is as it should be.

Richard Marker teaches and advises funders from around the world through both the NYU Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education and the Wise Philanthropy Institute, both of which he founded. His blog can be found at Wise Philanthropy.