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The Science of Giving: Why Do People Donate to Charity?

Published September 6, 2022 | by Groundswell | 6 mins read
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It’s easy enough to give away that old sofa stashed in the corner of your garage. But why do people donate to charity? What causes you, or anyone else, to send a $100 check to a foundation or spend an evening tutoring underserved youth? 

We have dozens of sayings about giving. Do good and good things will happen to you. To whom much is given, much is expected. I can’t do everything, but I can do something. There’s more, but the point is that giving is a part of the human experience. Without a doubt, for many people, it seems the right thing to do. People give because it feels good to do so. 

Americans are a particularly generous lot. In fact, 60% of us give money, 72% help strangers and 42% volunteer, often just because we are asked. And during the pandemic? Americans became even more generous. In 2020 and 2021, donations were higher than they were in 2019. The average donation per person was $574 in 2021.

What’s more, there are undeniable psychological and scientific benefits that make donating important to the human spirit and will keep people giving generously into the foreseeable future. 

The Science of Giving: What Happens in the Brain

For Americans, there are plenty of opportunities to spend money which, researchers admit, provide a dopamine hit. So it can be tempting to think that we’re just a purchase away from nirvana. But the accumulation of things is not the type of spending that makes a difference in our lives or the lives of others. We get more bang for the buck, so to speak, when we give to others. That’s because giving has a positive impact on the brain. It makes sense that our brains would reward us for helping to preserve society, releasing the same types of feel-good chemicals as during exercise. It is one of the evolutionary traits that has helped us build prosperous civilizations. 

In fact, in 2006, Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman, neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health, were able to measure the neural activity of giving, thus proving what we intuitively knew already. Subjects were allocated money that they could either keep for themselves or donate to selected charities. By tracking the impact on the pleasure centers of the brain, researchers discovered that the midbrain ventral tegmental area (VTA) and the subgenual area lit up when subjects donated the money. These are the same parts of the brain that light up when presented with a delicious meal or when talking about a romantic partner.

Why Do People Donate to Charity?

For years, there has been a philosophical discussion about whether or not charitable giving is altruistic. Do people give their money and donate their time just for the purpose of doing good, expecting nothing in return? Psychologists and philosophers argue that because charitable acts lead to feelings of happiness and satisfaction, true altruism does not exist.

But many people consider this argument flawed. When it comes to human behavior, there are many shades of gray. If a benefactor feels happier following an act of kindness, that doesn’t mean that the motivation is self-serving. 


Altruism is a hallmark of cooperation. Cooperation underpins our society and is, in part, what separates humans from animals. Why do people donate? Because it feels good. Our society is built on the values of empathy, compassion and solidarity, among others. People give because doing so fosters a sense of belonging and generates meaning and purpose in their lives. 

There are other good outcomes, as well.

Giving May Help Depression

It’s pretty obvious that giving makes people happier. Michael Norton, professor of psychology at Harvard and co-author of the book, “Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending,” agrees. “When we tell people ‘Hey, did you know that giving to other people can make you happy?’ Most people are not blown away. They’ve had experiences that make them happy. They understand the concept, but it doesn’t occur to us that often to give instead of getting stuff for ourselves.”

If you’re assuming that depression is not a major factor in your company, don’t be so sure. According to a July 2021 survey by SilverCloud Health, approximately two-thirds of U.S. workers suffer from clinical levels of depression or anxiety. Depression may mean that employees exhibit a high rate of absenteeism and fall short in key areas of performance, including decision-making, focus and communications. When an employee is depressed, it can have a devastating effect on the workplace. 

Depression is generally accompanied by a decline in how an individual views themselves. It may seem intuitive for those suffering from depression to attempt to bolster their self-image by focusing on, for example, getting others to notice their positive qualities. But researchers found that goals centered around self-image will likely make matters worse. 

Alternatively, they found that the pursuit of compassionate goals, that is, helping others, seems to alleviate the symptoms of depression and improve personal relationships. Perhaps that’s because helping others puts one’s own life into perspective and generates a more optimistic outlook. 

Giving Increases Longevity

Charitable volunteering could even increase your lifespan. A classic study published in the Journal of Health Psychology concluded that elderly volunteers had a 44% lower mortality rate within the next five years after controlling for health habits, social support and other factors. 

According to researchers, prosocial spending or spending money on other people (which includes charitable donations) can even lower blood pressure and reduce inflammation, both risk factors for a number of health conditions. 

The Charitable Brain and Your Corporate Giving Programs

According to Michael Norton, automatic withdrawals may not be enough to engage your employees. “(Automatic withdrawals are) not going to have as big an impact on my life as if I’m thinking about who I’m giving to and why I’m giving to them and the impact that I’m having.” 

When you understand how and why charitable giving makes people happy, you can leverage this information to make your corporate giving program one that will not only engage and delight your employees but accrue benefits to the company and to the broader society as well. The best programs align with corporate values and help employees establish habits that facilitate giving in a memorable and meaningful way. 

Certainly, it makes sense for companies to implement programs that are easy to administer. But they must also ensure that employees are involved in selecting charities, auditing themselves, managing their giving targeting, tracking the good deeds of the non-profits and maybe even volunteering. 

With a properly executed corporate giving program, companies can realize the many benefits that such a plan has to offer to its employees and to the communities it serves. At Groundswell, we can help you give your corporate giving program a whole new look and feel and make it a pillar of your compensation system. Contact us for more information.

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