Ever Wondered: Why Do People Donate to Charity?

5 scientific reasons and 1 very important biblical reason for why people give

A bright young man who wants to be a scientist someday.

Working for this global ministry, there’s much to be fascinated by, but one thing that constantly amazes me is how so many regular, everyday, hardworking people are extremely generous in their giving.

In fact, people gave so generously this past year that Compassion surpassed $1 billion in revenue for the first time in our ministry’s history! That kind of giving is inspiring! But more than that, it’s going to bless more than 2.2 million children by helping them feel known, loved and connected as we work in partnership with sponsors, donors and local churches to release them from generational poverty in Jesus’ name.

But, being the naturally curious guy that I am, I wondered why people were so generous. I wondered: Why do people donate to charity or ministry at all? What do they get out of giving?

Turns out, there’s a lot of science behind the reasons for why people give.

The science: 5 reasons why people donate to charity

Girl wearing white scientist costume and holding test tubes in the streets of Huarichaca.

The fact that we feel compelled to give — even in regards to things like birthday gifts or presents of affection — is a drive that is universal. Anthropologists have found that every culture on the planet practices giving. And it’s been that way all throughout recorded history.

More recently, sociologists and behavioral psychologists have shown a combination of these following five drivers are common in any situation where people give:

1. They were asked

Sounds simple enough, right? Someone asks you, and you feel obligated to give them what they ask for.

This is the most common reason people donate to charity, too. In fact, according to a survey among charitable givers, more than 85% said that they gave as a direct result of simply being asked to give. And it makes sense that this would be the top reason according to behavioral science, because the simple act of asking conveys need.

Most people feel obligated to help others in need, but people don’t generally spend every moment of the day searching out the areas of need around them. So directly asking brings the need to their attention.

2. A sense of altruism

Because humans have the capacity to care for one another, we generally don’t want others to suffer. So it’s no surprise that many donors cite their altruistic belief that it’s important to them to help others as a reason why they donate to charity.

From a scientific perspective, being altruistic is good for your health. The act of giving releases serotonin (a mood-mediating chemical), dopamine (a feel-good chemical) and oxytocin (a compassion and bonding chemical) in our brains, making us happier and healthier. Studies have shown that through the act of giving, you might even live longer.

3. Trust that the organization will make a difference

Trust is a big reason for why people give, but it’s not always necessary — at first. Think of the person you see on the street corner asking for change. You have compassion on them and give them a dollar or two, but do you believe them when they tell you they intend to use the money for food or to find a place to stay?

The same is true for charitable organizations. When asked, you may still feel obligated to give once, but chances are you probably won’t give to a charity again unless you trust it to actually extend your altruism and make a difference for others. And this is where the science of trust in giving is best displayed. Behavioral studies show that establishing trust is critical for turning one-time givers into regular donors and sponsors.

4. Social experience — knowing someone helped or represented

Another survey of 814 American donors showed that many of them gave an initial charitable donation because it mattered to someone they know or care about or because they knew someone whom the cause directly benefited. For example, many people give to cancer research organizations because they know someone who has cancer. Or, they give to an animal shelter because someone they know is passionate about animals.

In Compassion’s case, it’s typically our current sponsors and donors who are passionate about helping children to have brighter futures who are our best fundraisers and acquirers of new sponsors.

5. Egoism — expecting to receive some personal benefit or tax reward

According to behavioral scientists, people expect to get some kind of reward for their generosity, even if they expect it subconsciously. In most cases, that reward is simply the good feeling that comes from giving. Sometimes it’s the feeling of being recognized and looking generous to others. And while hardly anyone who responded in donor surveys stated they primarily gave because of the tax benefit, most people said it was a consideration that contributed to their decision on which charity to give to.

The BIG biblical reason: Giving is a reflection of God’s image in us

A Compassion staff member is giving Brenda, in a red shirt, a gift for baby Samantha Isabel, who she is holding in her arms.

One thing that has confounded secular scientists is how it seems humans are born to give. A study done by University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences of nearly 100 19-month-olds found that the children, even when hungry, gave their food to a stranger in need. While much of how we act is based upon learned behaviors, giving and helping seems to come naturally, almost as if it’s a design feature. In fact, it is! The biggest reason that motivates people to give is because we are made in the image of God.

God is a giver, so as his images, we, too, have an inherent need to give. We are simply designed to give. And if that isn’t enough, we are mandated to give. More than 100 verses in the Bible tell us to generously give.

Pray about when and where you should give. Of course, we would love for you to help change the future for children living in extreme poverty by giving monthly and becoming a sponsor, but more than that, we want you to hear God’s prompt for your heart. Lift up your giving in prayer and ask God to show you where he wants you to give. Talk with friends and ask for recommendations, or consider the ways you would like to see the world better off. Chances are there is a reputable charity serving the need for that cause. Check out the Charity Navigator website to find charities you can trust.

What do you think about the reasons I’ve shared for why people donate? Do you agree or disagree? What motivates you to donate? I’d love to hear your stories and thoughts in the comments below.

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12 Comments |Add a comment

  1. Richard and Marlene Holmes April 28, 2021

    My deceased husband and I had been sponsoring first one child, then two! He passed away 12 years ago and i had to stop sponsoring because i couldn’t afford it! Compassion kept the support 9up and 2 years later i remarried and he was very interested in continuing the support I’d sponsored for 35 years ! We now have 7 sponsored children as we just picked up another child from Indonesia! They are such a blessing to know God is the one 💓 who provides for those children! My husband is 86 years old and i am 87 years old!WELL CONTINUE TO SUPPORT THESE PRECIOUS CHILDREN UNTIL GOS TAKES US HOME! MY HYSBAND AND I FEEL GOD IS KEEPING US WELL AND HEALTHY BECAUSE WE STRIVE TO SERVE HIM!

  2. Sami April 27, 2021

    This is the first article I have not enjoyed coming from Compassion. Maybe as it comes from a non Biblical view at the first, I don’t know. At our church, we aren’t asked, in fact in some ways the incredible Pastor tries to talk you out of it as this is a long term commitment. He stresses this so people don’t sponsor because they are asked! (Probably why people drop out or don’t write the children.)

    Second, egoism- I never went in thinking I would get anything out of this except trying to help a child and their family get by a little bit easier. Oh, I am thrilled when I receive a letter from one of the children we sponsor but do I expect it, no. As far as a tax benefit, well, I never thought of these children as a tax benefit.

    Since I have been blessed enough to have visited third world countries, volunteered in their orphanages, seen how so many of the world lives, my thought is yes, I want to assist these families in anyway I can. I want to try to bring smiles, make sure children receive food, medicine, education, and spiritual guidance.

    I would hope people would want to assist these children as we are so blessed! God blesses us, we should bless others.

    Anyway, this article took me back some. I hope when I give I am not doing this for my ego or for a tax benefit or because someone asked me. I pray it is because I was called to bless a child and their family since God blessed me so abundantly.

    1. Kaye-Lin April 28, 2021

      Hi Sami. I first want to thank you for your heart to bless you sponsored child. We are so thankful for your partnership and support! 💕 I am very sorry that this article brought some disappointment to you. Please know that it wasn’t our heart to make people feel like these are the only reasons people give or bless others. I will be happy to pass your feedback along. If you have any other concerns or questions for us, please send us an email at socialmedia@compassion.com. We are happy to help!

  3. Kathy Olson April 27, 2021

    I have been a Compassion sponsor for 38 years. My junior high school Social Studies teacher taught us about supply and demand, about scarcity and why some countries had more than enough and others didn’t have enough to go around. I decided I wanted to help someone who didn’t have enough. A missionary family we knew recommended Compassion. I started sponsoring when I was 17 and had a job and a checking account. Compassion had a slogan about, “You can’t change the whole world, but you can change the world for one child”. That spoke to me. I set out to change the world for one child. 38 years later, I am still doing it. Some have left early, but many have graduated. I love that Compassion teaches them about God and they leave the program with skills to support themselves. My kids left the program as mechanics, welders, carpenters, teachers, hair dressers, bread bakers, rug makers and some went on to be parents who will pass on what they learned to the next generation. Money well spent.

    1. Kaye-Lin April 28, 2021

      Hi Kathy! Thank you so much for sponsoring children in need over the past 38 years! It is amazing to hear how you started sponsoring children when you were 17 years old. I know you have made a difference in so many children’s lives. We are so blessed to have you in the Compassion family. 🙂

  4. Patricia April 27, 2021

    God has been so gracious to me and my loved ones. It warms my heart to be able to share these blessings with other people less fortunate. I believe in Compassion and trust everything done is to the glory of God. The world would be in such better condition if we all reached out to help at least one other soul.

  5. Leanne April 27, 2021

    I started sponsoring children when my daughter was about 8. She is now 35 and has 4 children of her own. I continue to sponsor children – currently 2 boys but I have had a couple of children graduate from Compassion. The reason I sponsor children is that, even though I am on a pretty rigid fixed income, my income is WAY more than those families. I cut back on some of the things I like in order to have enough in my budget to sponsor 2 children at a time. One of my current sponsorships will likely graduate either this year or next – depends on what the pandemic does! and when he graduates, I will sponsor another child.

    Of those on the list (reasons), 2 and 3 are the reasons I sponsor.

    1. Kaye-Lin April 28, 2021

      Hi Leanne! Thank you so much for sharing your story. It is amazing to hear that you have been sponsoring children in need over the past 27 years! We are so blessed to have you in the Compassion family!

  6. Mary Elizabeth Parks April 27, 2021

    Thank you for the article. Our family supports four children. The “why” of giving rests intuitively in the “why not”. Simply, it is the right thing to do.

  7. NINSIIMA JOAN April 27, 2021

    It’s really over whelming how someone who knows nothing about you embraces and cares about like their own….its always peaceful to share…

    God bless all the sponsors and the sponsored.

  8. Jennifer April 27, 2021

    Good article. I give because I absolutely love sponsoring kids and trusting that Compassion is truly impacting lives, relieving suffering of many kinds, and providing opportunities to break free of poverty for these kids and their families. Writing to my kids is a ministry in itself, and I hold it as one of the most important things I do in my life.

    Hearing that in a challenging year Compassion surpassed 1 billion in revenue for the first time is amazing. I am so excited by that!

    My daughter and I volunteered at our first Compassion event a few nights ago. It blessed us in so many ways! Bonding mother/daughter time, talking about Compassion with many people, serving Jesus in a small way. It was not a large event, but 14 kids got sponsored. The chemicals in my brain were definitely making me happy that night. ☺

    1. Mackenzie April 27, 2021

      Jennifer, thank you so much for volunteering with your daughter! We are so honored that you joined us for the night and advocated for children! What a blessing to those 14 children who now have sponsors! Blessings! 💙😊

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