Motivations for Giving and Serving

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Financial Resources
Without giving, it is reasonable to assume there would be no nonprofit or volunteer sector and little capital base from which to address social needs and problems and make necessary societal changes. The nonprofit sector has been built on three factors--financial giving, giving of time, and voluntary association (voluntarily belonging to a group). This paper examines a variety of theories concerning why people contribute their time, talent and money for the common good.


Motive is defined in Encyclopedia Britannica as "something (as a need or desire) that causes a person to act."

Giving is defined as "to make a present of" (The American Heritage Dictionary, second ed.).

Historic Roots

The original concept of motivation grew from the Greek philosophers' ideas of hedonism, which argues that it is human nature, and good practice, to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. These concepts were later meditated on by the English utilitarian writers, such as Thomas More in his book Utopia. Authors theorized that behavior was decided prematurely, the individual was thought to draw from a mentally prepared list of possible actions that assessed what outcomes were the best choices for capitalizing on satisfactory stimuli (Vroom 1964, 9).

In time, many theories abounded. Western theories of human nature debated John Locke's view of humans as being selfish and competitive against Karl Marx's viewpoint of human nature being social and altruistic. Then, in the early 1900s, Sigmund Freud began making strides toward explaining the nature of humans with his theories of psychoanalysis which led to the belief that choices made by an individual were a reflection of his or her inner unconscious conflicts and impulses. His daughter, Anna Freud, later suggested that individuals gain from the pleasure-producing feelings that one feels after giving.

In 1906, Ivan Pavlov published his research which became one of the central foundations in psychology theory. He based his research on his observations of his dogs. With training, they learned to respond to the ring of a bell as they were presented with food. Eventually he found that the dogs responded to the bell as if food were being presented when in actuality it was not. Their trained response to the bell became known as classical conditioning.

Theories taking on a spectrum of perspectives began to take shape as psychologists began to publish their own research and conclusions on human behavior, including in the area of giving. The motives behind giving behavior have been explained in a continuous scale ranging from a behavior being fully altruistic to fully egotistical. This branch of social psychology, begun with the work of William McDougall in 1908, studied the effects of societal norms on personality, behavior, motivations and attitudes. The concept of social intelligence plays into comprehending social situations and the ability to act accordingly. Social status can also be a playing predictor behind one's motive to give. Involvement in social structures (for example, those seen in families, and between co-workers and friends) can give significant satisfaction back to an individual. This satisfaction can create a want to reinvest back in that relationship through the form of giving. The amount an individual gives determines how an individual is valued and accepted by others with which they may interact. The satisfaction an individual receives from becoming a valued member in their social surroundings is positively correlated with how highly an individual feels they are valued.

On two ends of the spectrum of motivations lie altruism and egoism. Altruism is the idea that one is obliged to do as much as possible to increase the pleasure of others. It has been defined by some in three components, including 1) a desire to give, 2) empathy and 3) having no motive of receiving anything from the behavior. The empathy component is engaged when an individual perceives the need of another. Egoism has been defined as the individual's giving purely for the benefits received by them. The giving behavior is embarked on in order for the individual to relieve him or herself of the unpleasant feeling caused by empathy.

During World War I, Walter B. Cannon studied what physical drives are behind motives. He is most noted for his introduction of homeostasis, a theory taken from a purely physiological viewpoint. The theory attributes the changes in an individual's physiology to a response to best prepare the body to deal with psychological anxiety. Next came behavioral psychology, introduced in the 1930s by John Watson and continued by well-known psychologist B. F. Skinner. The concept of behaviorism was based on Ivan Pavlov's work pertaining to classical conditioning. In the study of behaviorism, behavior is measured in terms of the response to stimuli that a subject exhibits; any internal influences such as emotion or ideas were ruled out in the theory. Skinner theorized two types of reinforcers in his theory of operant conditioning: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is utilizing a reinforcer to cause the desired behavior to occur again. Negative reinforcement occurs when an unpleasant stimulus is removed in order for the behavior to take place again. Punishment, the other part of operant conditioning, is the undesirable stimulus which follows a behavior that in time will stop that behavior.

In response against the schools of psychoanalysis and behaviorism, the branch of humanistic psychology was developed. It examined the internal facets of the human mind and need. Abraham Maslow became well-known for his theory of self-actualization and the hierarchy of needs. Maslow theorized that some individuals reached a level of self-actualization, but only after completing a series of stages, starting with fulfilling the basic need for food and water, then to finding the safety of shelter and warmth, to finding respect and esteem. After all these stages have been fulfilled the individual can begin a process to a deep understanding of self or "self-actualization." As the individual works to achieve each level of need, the meeting of the next need is what determines the individuals functioning. Examples of popular people Maslow theorizes to have reached self-actualization are Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi.

It has been found through research that the more favorable an individual feels towards performing an action, the more likely he or she will follow through with doing that action. The amount of pressure put on an individual can also play a factorthe more pressure that is placed on an individual to perform an action, the more likely he or she will perform. Presumed outcomes are also a factorthe more positive an outcome the more likely an action will be performed. Other determinants that are thought to lie behind motivation include social norms of the individual's environment and personality variables.

More recent theories of human nature take into account the research into genetics and biology of humanity mixed with social anthropology research. Common wisdom and scientific leanings recognize a fusion of nature and nurture values which can explain what creates the motivation behind giving. Yet, controversy still exists because of the difficult nature of empirically testing these theories.

Important Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The importance of the motivations behind giving to the philanthropic sector is evident. Without such motivation, nonprofit organizations would either not exist or be insignificant, as compared to their great numbers and essential role in American society. In other words, without giving it is reasonable to assume there would be no nonprofit or volunteer sector and little capital to have made profound societal changes to address needs and right social ills. The sector has been built on three factorsfinancial giving, giving of time, and voluntary association (voluntarily belonging to a group).

Looking back through history, one can see the vital importance of nonprofit organizations in supporting numerous reform movements. Examples of these include the Abolition movement, woman's suffrage, human and civil rights and protection of environmental resources. In the 1960s and 1970s, the central goal of nonprofit action was activism. With the changes that have occurred in society, nonprofits have begun to fill a broader range of duties in society's communities.

Today the motivation that drives the nonprofit system serves as a vital function of society. The nonprofit sector serves in many cases as a force that has the ability to devise answers quicker than public organization to economic or social problems (Salomon 1999).

The present day donor has the goal of focusing on a cause to give to in order to see results. If the anticipated results do not occur, then the organization gives the donor a reason to hold it accountable. In this way, the wealthy utilize this sector as a type of social control. In many cases, it is to achieve their desires. It is their discretion what purposes their money will promote. Examples of these priorities are to discover knowledge on a certain topic; to enable people to achieve their full potential; to preserve or improve an institution; to remember the dead; or, to support and encourage something that exemplifies excellence to the individual.

Religious faith is also a strong motivator behind giving. The doctrines of many faiths encourage or require charitable giving or action to help fellow human beings, society, and nature. Both Jewish and Christian ideas speak of "doing unto our neighbors as we would do unto ourselves." Islam teaches the giving of oneself for Allah's spirit. Buddhist beliefs teach restricting selfish desires. There are Biblical references to how the wealthy should be generous with their riches and use it for the betterment of mankind.

The religious principles provide meaningful giving by creating a relationship between the provider and those in need. Also, giving within the context of one's religious community provides the donor with the reassurance that the money will be used responsibly. These are among the factors that make religious organizations consistently the number one area to which Americans make donations, both through monetary donations and time (INDEPENDENT SECTOR 2003).

After the events of September 11, 2001, Americans seemed to have a rekindled interest in helping others. They have utilized the nonprofit sector to do this. Statistics by the Association of Fundraising Professionals show that sixty percent of charities had a rise in donations in 2001 from the previous year. Individual giving has remained strong, particularly in light of the bleak economic situation of 2002.

Until recent times, philanthropists have had the advantage of tax benefits on large donations to charity through what has become known as the "estate tax" or "death tax." Estates worth over $600,000 were taxed at fifty-five percent. Money from estates donated to nonprofit organizations is not taxed, thus reducing the tax liability for the entire estate.

Under the Bush Administration, the estate tax system is slowly being phased out as tax percentages are being lowered each year until 2010. The fifty-five percent tax on all estates over $600,000 is declining each year until the year 2010 when the rate reaches zero. It will return to the fifty-five percent rate in 2011 unless extended by further legislation.

Others benefit from charitable donations, too. Taxpayers who itemize their deductions also benefit from charitable gifts. If their income is large enough to file using the long form (with a Schedule A), individual deductions can be itemized. The amount owed to the IRS is then reduced.

A corporation can also deduct donations it makes. Today, corporate donations have become a familiar resource for nonprofit organizations. A common motivation behind this type of giving is an attempt to improve the corporation's image through a favorable public response. Corporations must consider the cause they are giving to as one that represents a strength and interest of the corporation and its stakeholders. For example, a corporation that gives scholarships to study in a field that relates to its type of business could result in producing more highly qualified employees available for hire. In most cases, improving social conditions surrounding a corporation is beneficial to profits.

Key Related Ideas

The word philanthropy means "love of humanity." Some believe that this love of others starts out with the development of an individual's self concept. One's self concept is the development of defining who you are to yourself. This is achieved through the interaction with others; psychological changes through the brain and connecting pathways; experiences gained in a variety of social situations or roles; and, how one perceives him or herself to be approved and accepted by peers and superiors. The feeling of empowerment is strong when an individual's gift has an impact on a specific cause. The responsible party sees him or herself as capable, and rightfully has reason for this self image.

A similarity of attitudes and goals can also be seen as a source of giving motivation. Similarities shared between individuals attract individuals to other individuals by which they feel accepted. This allows for, not only the security of acceptance, but also for more accurate behavior predictions of others in society.

Values and norms are the part of society that instills these ideas of giving. A value is defined as an abstract broad concept that is shared among a group. It sets the standard for what is good or bad, ugly or beautiful and so on. A norm is the behavior that is to occur based on the values determined. Both vary depending on the individual's experiences. These cultural values and norms can perhaps be why an individual is motivated to give a gift of money to eradicate a negative image of him or herself and replace it with a positive public or self image. There is also the motivation of an individual's reaching a place in his or her life where they realize all they had sought out in life. At this point, the giving is a continuation of goals yet to be reached. Also, with a certain level of wealth comes more freedom, this allows an individual to address previous concerns by making an impact through monetary donations and the use of various resources and political clout.

When attempting to attribute which of these factors is behind the motivation to give, one must understand that it is usually not just one factor. Instead, it is a mixture of many which changes with each individual.

Important People Related to the Topic

Past philanthropists have left behind legacies for those in the modern world to follow. It is important to remember that everyone's story is different and that an individual's motives to give are complex and can never fully be understood. The lives of well-recognized philanthropists give hint to motivations, though their stories are as complex as any giving individual's.

Andrew Carnegie, who made his wealth in the steel industry, was one example of a philanthropic legacy. He contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to build a large number of free libraries across the United States and the world, and to establish universities, hospitals, and arts centers. He also set up numerous foundations, two of the largest being Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The philosophy behind his philanthropy was that passing wealth along to his children would "tempt them to lead a less useful and a less worthy life" (Epstein 2000). In his Gospel of Wealth, Carnegie argued that the responsible wealthy elite would dispense of their wealth during their lifetime for the betterment of society. According to bibliographic sources, relationships in Carnegie's life held much discord. He used his giving as a way to gain satisfaction out of life. His surplus of wealth granted him the freedom to pursue issues in which he had a personal interest, such as education, science and research.

Another example of a visibly philanthropy person was Princess Diana of Great Britain. It has been speculated that she reached out to the world to receive back the reverence she thrived on from childhood. Her marriage into the royal family brought many feelings of hurt and rejection as her marriage fell to pieces. She refocused the negativity by reaching out help address issues afflicting the world in order to find a niche that would receive her well (Mulvaney 2002, 175). Since her premature death, her efforts have been recognized many times over by the world.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

As the importance of nonprofit work has become more widely recognized in society, institutions that study the nonprofit sector and patterns of giving and volunteering have grown exponentially. Additionally, specialized undergraduate and graduate programs that train people for work in nonprofit organizations have also grown. Among the organizations that conduct research, and providing training and degree programs are:

The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University's mission is "to increase the understanding of philanthropy and improve its practice through research, teaching, and public service" ( Through academic programs, research and practical training offered nationally and internationally, the Center works to achieve its mission. It offers masters degree programs in philanthropic studies and public affairs in nonprofit management.

The Johnson Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership at Grand Valley State University was founded in 1992 as a university-wide center that "promotes effective philanthropy, community improvement, and excellence in nonprofit leadership" ( GVSU and the Center offer nonprofit management courses and seminars for nonprofit sector employees.

INDEPENDENT SECTOR is a coalition of nonprofits, foundations, and corporations committed to strengthening not-for-profit initiative, philanthropy, and citizen action. The organization performs research on philanthropy, American giving and volunteerism, and the nonprofit sector. The IS Web site, at, provides an organizational history, mission, and current programs, downloadable research documents on giving and service and the nonprofit sector, and an overview of public policy that affects nonprofits.

Bibliography and Internet Sources

Adamopoulos, John, and Yoshihisa Kashima, eds. Social Psychology and Cultural Context. Vol. 4 of Cross-Cultural Psychology Series. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 1999. ISBN: 076190638X.

Bernacchi, Gina. "Giving Grew After September 11 Terror Attacks," The Non Profit Times (2001).

Cash, Adam. Psychology for Dummies. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2002. ISBN: 0764554344.

The Century Foundation. Increasing Donations to Charity.

Coplan, Jill Hamburg. "Less Means More," Barron's 81 (2001): 51, 26-28.

Epstein, Gene. "Death, Taxes and Philanthropy," Barron's 80 (2000): 51, 27-27.

Hunt, Morton. The Compassionate Beast. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1990.


Krass, Peter. Carnegie. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2002. ISBN: 0471386308.

Mulvaney, Jay. Diana and Jackie: Maidens, Mothers, Myths. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002. ISBN: 0312282044.

Salamon, Lester M. American's Nonprofit Sector: A Primer, 2d ed. New York: The Foundation Center, 1999. ISBN: 0879548010.

Vroom, Victor H. Work and Motivation. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1964.

Wuthnow, Robert and Virginia H. Hodgkinson and Associates. Faith and Philanthropy in America. Washington, D.C.: Independent Sector, 1990.


This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.