Want to Live Long and Prosper? Donate More!

November 8, 2011; Source: Xperedon.comAs debate rages in the United States about whether charitable giving will shrink if it’s no longer encouraged by a federal tax deduction, it begs the question of why we assume people make donations in the first place. There’s a growing body of research seeking to answer just that question, and the findings are rich with implications for the nonprofit sector.  Among key findings is that generosity deeply aligns with our self-interests, because by nature it benefits donors in tangible ways.

This isn’t to say that pure altruism doesn’t exist.  Psychologists observe that some people are better able to empathize with the plight of others. Generosity is also influenced by experiences, such as growing up in a charitable family, or having been personally affected by a tragedy or act of generosity.  According to research with very young children, sponsored by the Science of Generosity Initiative at the University of Notre Dame, it’s thought that some people are even genetically predisposed to generosity.

Motives for giving are not always altruistic, however.  People give, for example, to create a better public image or to feel better about themselves.  And yes, perhaps they give to save money on their taxes.

No matter what the motive, research shows that generosity directly benefits the well-being of those who give. For example, several studies, including one sponsored by the University of British Columbia, provide evidence that people who give are happier than those who don’t.  In the UBC study, donating as little as $5 helped people feel better.  Another study sponsored by the University of Oregon demonstrated that for many participants, giving activates the same pleasure centers of the brain as receiving—which are also the same brain centers involved with addiction.  Furthermore, people who leave money to charity in their wills live three years longer than those who don’t, according to a 2008 study by the U.K. based Fire Services National Benevolent Fund. Finally, several research studies suggest that generosity is associated with popularity. For example, in 2010 Newcastle University researchers created a game based on giving: the more generous participants also accumulated the most gifts back from others.

In other words, generosity brings happiness, longevity and popularity. Could direct appeals to donor self-interest along these dimensions help nonprofits get more results when they solicit donations? Does this angle get in the way of authentically building issue awareness and effective advocacy? What do you think? –Kathi Jaworski