Understanding reasons for giving key to strategic philanthropy

Why do you and others give? Many people believe that the act of giving to charity is motivated by altruism — the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others. Is altruism the driving force behind most philanthropy? I think not. I’ll explain.

There is a woman who appears to be homeless who spends her days on a corner near my office. When I hand her a sandwich, I hopefully enhance her well-being. However, I too derive a sense of well-being (some call it the “warm glow”) from having helped her — thereby reinforcing my personal belief that I’m a good person who cares about others.

Often, philanthropists think about their giving in terms of the people they donate to and, perhaps, the impact of their gifts. But this is only one side of the equation. Truly strategic, meaningful and effective philanthropy also must meet the internal goals of the donors — who need to feel that they are giving for reasons relevant to their lives.

As advisers to philanthropists, we have learned that there are many motivations for parting with hard-earned money in pursuit of a greater good. There is no “bad” reason to be philanthropic. The wide range of reasons we encounter include:

Gratitude. Often, people give in appreciation of an organization that helped them or a loved one in a time of need, or gave them an opportunity to advance their own lives. These donors want to “pay it forward.”

Religion or faith. All major religions advocate helping others through charitable acts — and many of the faithful comply. Their motivation may be genuine adherence to faith or enhancement of the donor’s own life — now or in the hereafter.

Ego and recognition. Many donors give so that others will see them as generous people in their communities. In addition, public recognition demonstrates leadership and inspires others to give.

Healing or strengthening family bonds. Many people use philanthropy as a tool to bring family members together — repairing damaged relationships, strengthening good ones, and conveying family values. Setting a “philanthropy table” helps many families work together with shared values towards common goals — improving overall family dynamics.

Passing values to rising generations. Often, older donors wish to pass on more than money to their heirs. Family philanthropy is one of the most effective ways to help rising generations understand what motivated their elders.

Guilt. Some people feel guilty about the wealth they’ve created or inherited; they engage in philanthropy to help assuage those feelings.

Compassion. Many philanthropists are truly compassionate, caring deeply about the plight of the less fortunate and opening their hearts and wallets to make a difference in the lives of others.

Prevention of similar experiences. Sometimes, donors who have experienced misfortune or discrimination donate in order to prevent the same thing from happening to others. Examples include victims of racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, heterosexism, anti-Semitism and other “isms” who often address these challenges through philanthropy.

Access and power. Philanthropy can provide donors with access to influential people, unique life experiences, and opportunities to influence important events and institutions.

Creating a legacy. Most people want to be remembered as having done good things while they lived. Hence, they make philanthropy a cornerstone of their lives.

Connection and well-being. Philanthropic activities connect people with others who share their values and help people feel part of a community. The psychological, health and longevity rewards of philanthropy are well-documented.

Tax savings. The generous tax treatment of philanthropy often motivates people to give, or give more, to charity. For most people, however, the tax deductibility of charitable donations is well down the list of motivating factors.

In order for donors to engage in philanthropy meaningfully and well, it is important that they understand their reasons for doing so. Too often, the conversation with advisers begins and ends with altruism and tax planning, resulting in philanthropy that is primarily transactional — rather than transformational for both the donor and the community.


Nonprofit of the month: Chef Ann Foundation

With childhood obesity at an all-time high and millions of kids across America eating school lunch daily, Colorado-based Chef Ann Foundation ensures that children have access to fresh, healthy food at school. Since 2009, CAF has provided resources like salad bars, kitchen equipment and training materials to school nutrition teams, helping over 6,000 schools create healthier food and nourish the minds, bodies and futures of 2.5 million children. Info: chefannfoundation.org


Bruce DeBoskey is a Colorado-based philanthropic strategist. He is the founder of The DeBoskey Group helping families, businesses and foundations across the U.S. design and implement thoughtful philanthropic strategies and actionable plans. He is a frequent speaker at conferences on philanthropy.