Why Do We Donate To Charity? Because It Feels Good!

Even poor people donate money to charity. Why? According to a new study by University of Oregon economics professor William Harbaugh and psychology professor Ulrich Mayr, they do it because it feels good.

The Chicago Tribune reports that the study, which scanned the brains of volunteers as they donated money to a food bank, showed that the pleasure centers of the brain were activated by the act of giving. Even more interesting, not all people responded in the same way. The study showed that people whose brain reacted more to being given money were less willing to make donations.

“The brain is directly telling us, ‘I like the food bank more than I like me,’ or the other way around and can tell you who’s going to give,” said Colin Camerer, economics professor at the California Institute of Technology. “That’s pretty cool.”

Does giving to charity make you feel good? Is it just the tax deduction part that makes you smile? Do you even give to charity? Is there a place for it in your budget? —MEGHANN MARCO

Donating to charity is good for the brain, according to study [Chicago Tribune via Freakonomics]


Edit Your Comment

  1. Hoss says:

    “Even poor people donate money to charity. Why?”

    Because they know what it’s like to be one paycheck away from a shelter

    Because they’ve lived with chemical abuse, sexual violence, and general violence

    Because they often have relatives living under 3rd world circumstances with governments that steel and harass

    Because they are around people with health issues due to poor diets and general lack of care

    Etc, etc.,

    Why would anyone pose such a question?

  2. gorckat says:

    @Hossofcourse: Spot on.

    Why do I work in for an Energy Assistance Program making ~10k less than I could in the private sector?

    Because I’ve had my lights off with a newborn and later on when she was 5 had to lie and tell her we were playing campout in the basement when it was 95 degrees overnight.

    Its right. Its good. People want to help.

  3. mikyrok says:

    I give to charity.. it seems to automatically come out of every paycheck with the title “FICA”.

  4. snazz says:

    why the picture of toast? i was expecting a cat….

  5. acambras says:

    I don’t think it should be so surprising that poor people give to charity, especially considering the reasons given by commenters above.

    It’s also worth noting that the people with the least tend to give the most generously. (I don’t have a citation for that — it’s just an observation I’ve made over the years).

  6. mac-phisto says:

    i read a fascinating paper by a former homeless person with a drug addiction discussing the philosophy of giving (in relation to his experiences in the seattle shelter system) & how a selfless act of giving simply didn’t exist. it was quite eye-opening.

  7. MentalDisconnect says:

    I don’t give my money to charity- I give my time. That makes me feel better than writing a check (I’ve ever only written one check in my life, but anyway) and giving it over. I don’t know what will be done with my money! When I volunteer, I see the direct results. I volunteer at an animal shelter, and I’ve worked on building and improving shelters- for people. I’ve been homeless and I don’t have a lot of money even now, because of being disabled. Because of this, a lot of jobs are challenging to me. Volunteering is nice because keeping busy prevents me from getting depressed, I know that I’m doing something to help, it’s visible progress, I get to play with kittens, and those who supervise my volunteer work are happy to have me their and thus flexible- it’s easy to work with my disability. Low stress, high yield.

  8. MentalDisconnect says:

    I guess I’m the ideal person to give to charity, having been in foster care, homeless, disabled, victim of abuse, former substance abuser, and owner of a few mental disorders. But I have my wits about me most of the time, I can work hard in a low stress environment, and I have a sense of humor. As a friend once said, “Kai, you have it all!” Yes, the good and the bad. Giving myself to charity is how I tilt my life towards the good. Yes, it feels good. Maybe I’m being selfish. But I’ve learned after 23 years to cultivate happiness in myself.

  9. ShadowFalls says:


    I would say from observation that is an accurate statement.


    That certainly is true, giving your time can be just as rewarding and helpful, but some don’t have all day to give either, or much time at all, that is why they give money.

    I have seen one other part of donating to charity, sometimes it is not about the giving, in other cases it is about getting rid of their junk. If you have ever seen some of the garbage that is donated and thrown away by charities, you would know what I mean.

  10. grouchypants says:

    But why does charity make us feel good? Couldn’t one argue that our charity and the associated good feeling are both the results of whatever reasons we see for donating? You feel good about it because you have reason to think that it is a good thing.

  11. etinterrapax says:

    I agree. I think one reason that it feels good to give to charity, though, is that it’s proof that we’re doing well enough to have excess. I’m glad for the people who benefit from my donations, but they’re abstract for the most part, whereas having extra ourselves feels like real wealth. I somehow feel like that’s an obnoxious thing to say, and we’re far from rich in the conventional sense. But I try to be honest about why I would enjoy this.

    I wish we could give more. I once read that most charities are supported by the $10 donation. That made me feel a lot better about actually donating, instead of saying, well, I wish I could, but I’m not rich enough to be a help. A friend of mine used to work for a United Way affiliate, and they would regularly have things like art benefits to raise money. I always thought it was kind of obnoxious to charge $100 even to get in the door. I can’t afford that, so I’m not good enough to give? So have some other kind of event, one where ordinary people feel welcome. Then you’ll see some wallets open.

  12. “Does giving to charity make you feel good?”

    I don’t know if I do it because it feels good; I do it because that’s the way I was raised — that that’s the right thing to do. I wonder how many other C’ist readers are the same? I was just brought up that adult and contributing members of society volunteer time and donate money to charities. I’m actually always a little shocked when I meet someone who DOESN’T. It’s like not voting!

    @acambras: “the people with the least tend to give the most generously.”

    I have seen statistics to this effect, although the only ones I have to hand are from Catholics in early 1900s New York City. :D

    @etinterrapax: “once read that most charities are supported by the $10 donation. … I can’t afford that, so I’m not good enough to give? So have some other kind of event, one where ordinary people feel welcome. Then you’ll see some wallets open.”

    The problem is that there are processing costs to donations. If you have a processing cost of $2.50 per donation, only 75% of a $10 donation gets to the charity, whereas 97.5% (is that right?) of the $100 donation gets to the charity. And these numbers can matter a LOT on sites like Charity Navigator.

    There are ways for charities to make the “$10 donation” work (the local charity I’m most active with is all about “the $10 donation”), but there is a tradeoff. For us, we put in a lot more volunteer man hours to cover “overhead” costs (like simple office chores — they really add up, even for a small charity!). But some charities simply don’t want donations under a certain amount because it costs them more in overhead to process the donation than the donation is worth, or because it screws with their numbers for “percent of donations to overhead costs.”

  13. mac-phisto says:

    @Eyebrows McGee: i think what makes the $10 donation so profitable is the ability to sell your name & address to other charities at a premium.

    i used to make this mistake with environmental charities. $10 here, $10 there…next thing you know, i was personally responsible for the deforestation of an entire state (which was the exact opposite of my intentions).

    i don’t donate anymore…i just work within the community to promote conservation.

  14. zolielo says:

    Charity particularly if done in public or referenced to others publicly increases one’s social capital.

    I am still writing a book on social capital and its relation to other topics. One of these days I will finish it up. No rush…