Rhodri Davies, Programme Leader, Giving Thought

Rhodri Davies

Head of Policy

Charities Aid Foundation

The role of giving


22 August 2011

“But what about good old-fashioned altruism?” This is one of the questions that comes to mind when reading some of the policy work coming out of government on the issue of charitable giving. A key feature of both the green and white and papers on giving, and of some of the subsequent new funding that has been announced, is a focus on reciprocity: finding new forms of “offering donors something in return” in order to incentivise giving. This raises the question of whether people do increasingly expect to get something back, or whether there is still room for overtly selfless or altruistic behaviour.

Of course, the first thing we should ask ourselves is whether there is really any such thing as true altruism, or whether there is inherently some element of reciprocity in any form of giving.


In order for a gift to be altruistic in the strictest sense, the donor would have to get absolutely no benefit from giving it, but in reality there is almost always some return, be it the “warm glow” of doing a good deed, the recognition of one’s peers, the sense of religious obligation met etc. And this is not necessarily a bad thing: increasingly people are beginning to recognise the positive impact that charitable giving has on the wellbeing of donors, and using this to promote giving. In order for a gift to be purely altruistic, it would require that the donor got no pleasure from the gift, no recognition, no improvement in personal well-being or anything else. And this would in turn require that the motivation for giving was a coldly rational, non-religious one based on recognition of the a priori worth of making gifts to others. Does this ever really happen in practice?

If we accept that any form of giving other than the idealised, purely altruistic one results in the donor getting something back, then the question becomes: what counts as an acceptable reward, and what does not? Because there still seems to be a difference between receiving a warm glow as a result of giving, and expecting a financial reward. There may in fact be a spectrum of rewards on which both of these lie: the challenge is to calibrate this spectrum so we can discern suitable from unsuitable.


It is instructive to look at the area of social investment at this point, as there has been a lot of debate in this field about the question of financial versus social returns and the trade-offs people are willing to make between the two. It has been proposed that there is a spectrum of expectations: at one end we have those who give money and expect more back in return, i.e. commercial investors, and at the other end we have those who give money and expect nothing back in return ie philanthropists.

Somewhere in the middle we might have social lenders who expect to get all or most of their money back, but for no real profit, or social investors, who expect some financial return, but are willing to accept less than commercial rates in exchange for some social return. There is in fact an ongoing debate about whether financial return is in some way inversely proportional to social return (i.e. the more financial return you can expect, the less social return you can expect and vice versa), so there always has to be a trade-off between the two, or whether it is possible to maximise both at the same time. However, that is a subject for another blog post.

The point is that this is a model of a spectrum of personal motivations for giving (or investing) money, and as such provides a starting point. However, the key variable in this model is financial return, so the zero point is defined solely by there being no expectation of getting any money back. If we assume that any expectation of financial return takes us away from true charitable donation and into the realms of social investment, then it is precisely this zero point that we want to focus on in order to answer the question posed earlier. What we need is a scale based on the level of “psychic return” or perhaps “improvement in wellbeing”, that will allow us to differentiate between different instances where there is no financial return, but varying degrees of return of a different kind to the donor.

The benefit of doing this would be that it would enable us to locate particular approaches within a range, and thus show us if we were in danger of focusing too heavily on one area of that range. If we could categorise (at least in broad terms) some of the new, highly reciprocal approaches that seem to be getting a lot of attention at the moment, such as time-banking or complementary currencies, in order to understand better how they relate to more altruistic forms of social action, then we might be able to ensure that we do not focus our attentions too narrowly. It is important that policies designed to encourage social action, generosity and charitable giving take into account a broad range of different methods and motivations, and recognise that there is no one approach that works for all instances.

In particular there might be a justifiable concern that practical approaches designed to draw on the idea of reciprocity rely too heavily on a notion of specific reciprocity i.e. “I expect y in return for doing x”. This type of approach can be useful in some circumstances, particularly where “traditional” relationships of community and neighbourhood have weakened, as it can catalyse positive behaviour with a view to reinvigorating these relationships in the long term.


However, it does have limitations and potential negative consequences. The influential sociologist Robert Puttnam, has argued that what is really important for society is a notion of “generalised reciprocity”, where we do good or socially positive deeds now, not with expectation of a particular return, but with an understanding that at some point in future we will benefit from the socially positive deeds of others.

The crucial point here is that it is this sort of universalised reciprocity that is needed in order to justify doing things for those who have no ability to give anything back themselves, as the relationship of gift and reward is distributed across a large population. If we only ever focus on specific reciprocity, there is a danger of some groups in society getting left out as they are unable to offer anything back in return for help.

Reciprocity and altruism are obviously both important motivations for people’s social action, and we should encourage both. What is important, though, is that we understand the balance between the two, and how to use them most effectively to incentivise people to give of their time and money.