Why Do People Give to Nonprofits and Charities? And Other Unanswerable Questions

This month’s Giving Carnival—discussed here previously—asks why people give and what motivates giving. I have no idea and suspect no one else does, either, but that’s not reason not to speculate. I assume that some combination of altruism, kindness, self-interest, pride, and noblesse oblige motives giving. Slate talks about the “immeasurable value of philanthropy” here:

But the core of [Lewis Hyde’s] insights are about the connections between donors and recipients and about how successful gifts continue to give, in, yes, a circle, from the direct recipients to others to whom they pass a gift along (in one form or another) and back to the donors. While a gift can have market value, its worth is often—and more importantly—psychological and social. Even when its impact isn’t immediate, it’s likely to be what Hyde calls “a companion to transformation.”

I’m not sure that has anything to do with anything. Later, however, the article ties into issues raised by posts about evaluations and their limitations:

As philanthropic organizations become more attentive to businesslike standards—how effective are nonprofits? What is a particular donation likely to accomplish?—they increasingly use the language of finance to describe their goals.

I can buy the dominant narrative in the press about philanthropy becoming more businesslike, but I doubt this tendency over the long run because of the incredible difficulty in measuring output without dollars that can be added up toward a bottom line. Still, this Slate article is actually worth reading even if it strays outside the context of the question discussed here because it raises the right issues, although I’m not sure the reporter fully grasps the issue of measurement. This issue ties back into what motivates giving because part of what motivates giving is probably effectiveness—meaning, is what I’m giving actually doing someone some good? Some recent books, like The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It and The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good argue that much Western aid has been wasted because it’s ineffective, which might lessen the desire to give aid. Consequently, I do think “effectiveness,” or the belief that giving helps someone aside from the giver, who gets a warm and fuzzy glow, at least in part motives ate.

I say “lessen” and “effectiveness” above, but I also think the desire to help others is intrinsic, like the desire for self-improvement. But just as there is an element of randomness in who gets funded, there seems to be a stronger one in the question of why people give.

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