I recently had a conversation with a good friend about the selfish motives of some who engage in charitable giving. Specifically, he felt those who made anonymous donations were better people than those who received recognition for their donations, whether that be a name on a building, a plaque, a mention in a publication, or something similar, because the latter did so to feel good about themselves.

Deep philosophizing and metaphysical pondering aside, it’s pretty indisputable that a person of sound mind has free will. This free will is not, however, Spock-like in its dispassionate rationality. We are each a sack of chemicals, and our responses to stimuli and actions are chemical in nature. We react more positively to sweet tastes than to bitter, since the former suggests nutritional value while the latter suggests poison. Serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and other hormones are released by our bodies when things that we are wired to like or prefer happen.

It makes sense that helping others (especially those we like) would trigger positive chemical releases, and indeed there is research to support this idea. Don’t believe me? Imagine you see a toddler at the precipice of a well. What’s your instant and instinctual reaction? This wiring is, by the way why the world’s successful religions, past and present, invoke giving, compassion, assisting the less fortunate, and so forth.

So, it’s not much of a stretch to assert that people donate because it makes them feel good.

Is this a bad thing? Is selfish charity somehow less worthy of our admiration than selfless charity (if such even exists)? A donor who chooses to remain anonymous will still feel satisfaction, but he may be the sort who values internal satisfaction more than praise from others. Or, he may simply be shy. Or, he may have other reasons for keeping his name out of the spotlight (reasons that could themselves be selfish in nature).

Practically speaking, the recipient of charity doesn’t care much whether the source is publicized or anonymous. Yes, some may consider it cloying to have to kiss the asses of benevolent billionaires, but even then, it remains a positive economic transaction for both parties. Fundraising galas are often lavish affairs, and eat up nontrivial portions of the monies collected in their execution, but if that’s what it takes to get people to donate, and the ledger is in the black at the end of it all, everyone walks away happy, no?

Furthermore, publicized charity offers its own benefits, both to the donor and to the recipient.

The visible donor can garner good will from acts of charity, good will that can translate to greater revenue and new income. Which, in turn, can lead to more charitable giving. Would this be a bad thing? Does donating money because the act can produce a return of its own diminish the quality of the donation? The recipients still receive the same benefit, so why would they care?

The visible donor can also prompt others to donate. People are competitive, and rich people are certainly not immune to the allure of one-upmanship. If a charity can tell Billionaire Jack that “Billionaire Joe gave us this much, are you willing to stand idly by while he gathers all the glory?” and get Billionaire Jack to cough up his own donation, then the publicity has served the charity well, even if it means putting Billionaire Joe’s name on a building.

More directly, visible donors can encourage others, including small donors, to pony up, by announcing they’ll match whatever others donate. The charity benefits, the visible donor gets his good will and feel-good, and many others who donate smaller amounts get amplified feel-good as well, since they can claim they’ve multiplied the power of their donation.

Fussing about how others donate their money is a misuse of our energy. Instead, we should pay attention to how others use our money, especially the government (which often crowds out private charities and their good deeds, or imposes sometimes-absurd rules on them). If we each worry about ours, instead of others’, we’ll probably all be a lot happier. While humans are similar in our chemical responses, we are not identical, and our motives can vary.

My friend asked me, if I were a school or hospital administrator, with all other things being equal, whether I’d prefer the anonymous donation or the one that came with a name on a wall. I told him I’d prefer the former, but not for the reason he expected (i.e. it’s more “pure”). An anonymous donation meant that I could “sell” that wall to someone else, thus garnering more donation money. The anonymous donor has his reasons, the put-my-name-on-it donor has his, but neither matters to the administrator all that much, as long as the money comes in.

At the core of it all is the charity. The why of it should be a very low priority to us, so long as the charity actually happens.

Now, there are people who pretend to charity, kinda sorta donating moneys while retaining control and finding ways to spend on themselves, and there are people who give with selfish, zero-sum goals in mind (see: buying your kid’s way into college). They’re topics for another day.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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