The selfish truth about charity

Human beings evolved and mastered our surroundings, overcame challenges and ultimately survived and prospered.  We did better than just survive because at our very core, our subconscious level, at our DNA level, we’re selfish (Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene 1976, Matt Ridley The Origins of Virtue 1996).  We do many things instinctively, subconsciously and guilt free, despite the fact that many of these actions are built on a solid foundation of self-interest, including being altruistic.

This subconscious, self-interested instinct is important for not-for-profit (NFP) leaders to understand as it is the core driver that underpins giving and fundraising. The charitable expression of ‘Altruism’, ie, giving, donating, volunteering, isn’t selflessness, it’s a subconscious survival strategy that is all about self.  It is selfish.

This notion that altruism is a selfish behaviour is not new.  Books such as The Selfish Gene,  The origins of Virtue and The Moral Animal, Robert Wright (1994) are good reads and there’s plenty more.

The purpose of this article is to bring this understanding back to the fore to build a perspective for charities, a paradigm shift for many on why people give. It’s time to change the game through deeper understanding of our deep-rooted drivers.

Charity revolves around the notion of altruism, so let’s begin with a definition. The Oxford dictionary describes altruism as “Disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others”. So a truly altruistic donor or fundraiser gains no benefit from the experience.  Do you believe that? Try not sending receipts or not acknowledging donors, try reducing the benefits a major donor or benefactors receives and see if it’s a selfless, disinterested person you’re talking to.    

You see if pure altruism exists we wouldn’t need fundraising at all would we?  We’d just put a big secure mailbox out the front or a simple donation button on our website and the cash would pour in.  We wouldn’t need major donor programs, we wouldn’t need face-to-face fundraisers, call centres, peer-to-peer fundraising tools, fun runs or anything that interacts with our donors at all.  Lovely altruistic people would just rock up and anonymously throw their hard-won savings at us without giving it a second thought, we wouldn’t even need to say thanks. 

It doesn’t work like that though does it?  We all think we’re special, we’re different, we’re committed to helping others because we’re a nice person.  Realistically though we are helping others, we’re ‘altruistic’ because subconsciously we understand that there’s something in it for us.  Now don’t go thinking bad of yourself, get defensive or lose faith in humankind, we’re talking about behaviour that’s ingrained, primal and usually subconscious. 

Suggesting our notion of ‘altruism’ is just selfish behaviour is confrontational and difficult to accept by charities. As Richard Dawkins points out in his book ‘The Selfish Gene’ we don’t have to like the truth, we can have an opinion of it but we can’t ignore it.  We can do something about it, we can make conscious decisions to counter this inbuilt behaviour and largely we do. But we are a selfish species aren’t we? Well, we’re not constantly selfish at a conscious level, but we’ve evolved in such a way that our mechanisms to survive are hard-wired within us.

Don’t get me wrong, altruism and our belief in it as a society is critical.  We exist today because the concept of altruism is applauded within society. Most likely our sense of community is due to what’s known as reciprocal altruism. As a charity or NFP, the important learning is that donors, fundraisers and volunteers are getting value out of their altruistic actions and it is game-changing when you understand what that value is.

If giving and fundraising is a selfish act, ask yourself why?  What’s in it for the donor or fundraiser? It’s not a one way street where donors give and charities receive.  It’s a value exchange. Think valuism, not altruism.

Flip your thinking and orient yourself around the notion that you have a product to ’sell’. Your ‘customers’ have a need (which I’ll cover next). They get value (conscious and unconscious) and you get value (income).

This post is part of a three post series on valuism the new game-changing insight for charities.  For the full article go to the ‘Smart Fuel’ section.

To get up to speed quickly and/or for an in-house masterclass head to the contact us page and let’s get in touch. 


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