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The Science of Giving: Why Do People Donate to Charity?

September 6, 2022
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It’s easy enough to give away that old sofa stashed in the corner of your garage. But why do people donate to charity? What causes you, or anyone else, to send a $100 check to a foundation or spend an evening tutoring underserved youth? We have dozens of sayings about giving. Do good and good things will happen to you. To whom much is given, much is expected. I can’t do everything, but I can do something. There’s more, but the point is that giving is a part of the human experience. Without a doubt, for many people, it seems the right thing to do. People give because it feels good to do so. Americans are a particularly generous lot. In fact, 60% of us give money, 72% help strangers and 42% volunteer, often just because we are asked. And during the pandemic? Americans became even more generous. In 2020 and 2021, donations were higher than they were in 2019. The average donation per person was $574 in 2021.What’s more, there are undeniable psychological and scientific benefits that make donating important to the human spirit and will keep people giving generously into the foreseeable future.

The Science of Giving: What Happens in the Brain

For Americans, there are plenty of opportunities to spend money which, researchers admit, provide a dopamine hit. So it can be tempting to think that we’re just a purchase away from nirvana. But the accumulation of things is not the type of spending that makes a difference in our lives or the lives of others. We get more bang for the buck, so to speak, when we give to others. That’s because giving has a positive impact on the brain. It makes sense that our brains would reward us for helping to preserve society, releasing the same types of feel-good chemicals as during exercise. It is one of the evolutionary traits that has helped us build prosperous civilizations. In fact, in 2006, Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman, neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health, were able to measure the neural activity of giving, thus proving what we intuitively knew already. Subjects were allocated money that they could either keep for themselves or donate to selected charities. By tracking the impact on the pleasure centers of the brain, researchers discovered that the midbrain ventral tegmental area (VTA) and the subgenual area lit up when subjects donated the money. These are the same parts of the brain that light up when presented with a delicious meal or when talking about a romantic partner.

Why Do People Donate to Charity?

For years, there has been a philosophical discussion about whether or not charitable giving is altruistic. Do people give their money and donate their time just for the purpose of doing good, expecting nothing in return? Psychologists and philosophers argue that because charitable acts lead to feelings of happiness and satisfaction, true altruism does not exist.But many people consider this argument flawed. When it comes to human behavior, there are many shades of gray. If a benefactor feels happier following an act of kindness, that doesn’t mean that the motivation is self-serving.


Altruism is a hallmark of cooperation. Cooperation underpins our society and is, in part, what separates humans from animals. Why do people donate? Because it feels good. Our society is built on the values of empathy, compassion and solidarity, among others. People give because doing so fosters a sense of belonging and generates meaning and purpose in their lives. There are other good outcomes, as well.

Giving May Help Depression

It’s pretty obvious that giving makes people happier. Michael Norton, professor of psychology at Harvard and co-author of the book, “Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending,” agrees. “When we tell people ‘Hey, did you know that giving to other people can make you happy?’ Most people are not blown away. They’ve had experiences that make them happy. They understand the concept, but it doesn’t occur to us that often to give instead of getting stuff for ourselves.”If you’re assuming that depression is not a major factor in your company, don’t be so sure. According to a July 2021 survey by SilverCloud Health, approximately two-thirds of U.S. workers suffer from clinical levels of depression or anxiety. Depression may mean that employees exhibit a high rate of absenteeism and fall short in key areas of performance, including decision-making, focus and communications. When an employee is depressed, it can have a devastating effect on the workplace. Depression is generally accompanied by a decline in how an individual views themselves. It may seem intuitive for those suffering from depression to attempt to bolster their self-image by focusing on, for example, getting others to notice their positive qualities. But researchers found that goals centered around self-image will likely make matters worse. Alternatively, they found that the pursuit of compassionate goals, that is, helping others, seems to alleviate the symptoms of depression and improve personal relationships. Perhaps that’s because helping others puts one’s own life into perspective and generates a more optimistic outlook.

Giving Increases Longevity

Charitable volunteering could even increase your lifespan. A classic study published in the Journal of Health Psychology concluded that elderly volunteers had a 44% lower mortality rate within the next five years after controlling for health habits, social support and other factors. According to researchers, prosocial spending or spending money on other people (which includes charitable donations) can even lower blood pressure and reduce inflammation, both risk factors for a number of health conditions.

The Charitable Brain and Your Corporate Giving Programs

According to Michael Norton, automatic withdrawals may not be enough to engage your employees. “(Automatic withdrawals are) not going to have as big an impact on my life as if I’m thinking about who I’m giving to and why I’m giving to them and the impact that I’m having.” When you understand how and why charitable giving makes people happy, you can leverage this information to make your corporate giving program one that will not only engage and delight your employees but accrue benefits to the company and to the broader society as well. The best programs align with corporate values and help employees establish habits that facilitate giving in a memorable and meaningful way. Certainly, it makes sense for companies to implement programs that are easy to administer. But they must also ensure that employees are involved in selecting charities, auditing themselves, managing their giving targeting, tracking the good deeds of the non-profits and maybe even volunteering. With a properly executed corporate giving program, companies can realize the many benefits that such a plan has to offer to its employees and to the communities it serves. At Groundswell, we can help you give your corporate giving program a whole new look and feel and make it a pillar of your compensation system. Contact us for more information.

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Unlocking Philanthropy: A Ready-to-Use Corporate Giving Policy for Modern Businesses

Sample Corporate Giving Policy You Can Use Today

In today’s socially conscious environment, more companies than ever are recognizing the value of corporate philanthropy. Not only can a robust giving policy boost a brand’s image and reputation, but it can also play a pivotal role in community development and global betterment. If your company is considering the establishment of a formal corporate giving policy or refining its existing strategy, this sample policy might be the perfect starting point for you.

Download Sample Policy

Pillars of a Strong Corporate Giving Policy

Corporate giving programs range from employer donation matching programs to full blown corporate social responsibility programs with grantmaking and volunteerism.  Many companies find somewhere in the middle that aligns with their size, budget, geographic presence and most importantly company values and commitment to diversity and inclusion. But what truly makes a corporate giving policy stand out? Let’s delve into the key features, from donation matching to the strategic use of platforms like Groundswell.

1. Donation Matching: Doubling the Impact

One of the most effective tools in a giving policy is donation matching. This is where companies match employee donations to eligible non-profits, effectively doubling the contribution. Such programs not only amplify the impact but also motivate employees to participate, knowing their chosen cause will receive twice the support.

2. Charitable Stipends: Encouraging Employee Choice

Charitable stipends are allowances given to employees to donate to a non-profit of their choice. This not only encourages a culture of giving but also empowers employees to support causes they’re passionate about. The stipends can be a fixed amount annually or can vary based on the employee’s role or tenure.

3. Dollars for Doers: Volunteering Translated to Contributions

“Dollars for Doers” programs convert volunteer hours into monetary donations. When employees volunteer their time for a cause, the company makes a donation equivalent to the hours spent. This fosters a culture of hands-on involvement and ensures that both time and money are being donated to valuable initiatives.

4. Corporate Grants: Sowing Seeds for Bigger Change

Beyond individual employee contributions, companies can set aside a dedicated fund for corporate grants. These grants can be given to non-profits, research initiatives, or community projects that align with the company’s CSR objectives. Such grants can lead to substantial, long-term changes and foster strong partnerships with community leaders and organizations.

Why Choose Groundswell for Your Giving Initiatives?

Incorporating these elements into a giving policy requires streamlined management, transparency, and ease of execution. This is where platforms like Groundswell come into the picture.

Groundswell offers an efficient and affordable solution for companies aiming to elevate their philanthropic endeavors. Here’s why it’s the ideal choice:

  • User-Friendly Interface: Groundswell’s platform is designed for both companies and employees, ensuring smooth navigation and straightforward donation processes.
  • Versatility: Whether it’s donation matching, handling charitable stipends, or managing corporate grants, Groundswell offers solutions tailored to each company’s unique needs.
  • Cost-Effective: Groundswell provides a comprehensive suite of tools at competitive prices, ensuring that more of your money goes towards the cause rather than platform fees.
  • Transparency: Track donations, monitor employee involvement, and generate detailed reports to measure the impact—all in one place.

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An effective corporate giving policy is a blend of structure, employee engagement, and impactful contributions. By incorporating elements like donation matching, charitable stipends, “Dollars for Doers,” and corporate grants, businesses can create a ripple effect of positive change. And with platforms like Groundswell, executing these initiatives becomes not just feasible but also highly efficient and cost-effective.

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5 Tips to Boost Engagement & Impact on Giving Tuesday

Leverage GivingTuesday to boost generosity

Every November, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving is known as GivingTuesday, which often serves as the unofficial start of end-of-year giving campaigns. This comes on the heels of holiday shopping deals on Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday. It is a worldwide phenomenon, inspiring millions to lean into the end-of-year holiday spirit with generosity and compassion. For many charities, GivingTuesday has become their biggest day for donations – and can help resource their ability to have an even greater impact in the year ahead.

For companies, GivingTuesday and the end-of-year giving season offers an opportunity to double down on their commitment to social responsibility, strengthen relationships with employees, and boost their impact in the community and broader world.

At Groundswell, we partner with companies all across the country to design and launch GivingTuesday campaigns – leveraging our easy-to-use platform that makes it easy for employees to participate and send donations to the causes and charities that they care most about. Below are some best practices to boost engagement and inspire generosity during the giving season.

1. Make Giving Easy:

A lot of giving platforms out there make it incredibly hard to donate. Some don’t have all 1.5 million IRS-approved charities listed. Others require employees to navigate through a web of intranet or sharepoint sites to find the giving program landing page. And others require that HR is notified of any donations an employee wants to make. At Groundswell – we are committed to removing all of the friction, and ensuring that employees can find charities easily, through a platform that is accessible from the palm of their hand, so they can give whenever they want to.

2. Launch a GivingTuesday Match Campaign:

Through Groundswell you can customize and launch a special GivingTuesday match campaign in a matter of minutes. Simply pick the nonprofits to include in the special campaign, select the start and end-date for the campaign, and then determine the match – 2x, 3x – along with any overall budget limits, then you’re done!

3. Boost engagement by involving ERGs:

Share nonprofit recommendations from Employee Resource Groups to provide inspiration around causes and nonprofits that matter to your employees. You can feature these nonprofits on dedicated ERG Corporate Spotlights and Campaigns that will be visible to all employees on their Groundswell dashboard.

4. Surprise (and Delight) Employees With A Gift to Give:

Consider sending a surprise “gift to give” to reward those already participating in your giving program (and to incentivize others to enroll). These gifts might be used to further maximize impact through the existing campaign, or to donate to other nonprofits your employees care about. Groundswell’s custom gift feature allows companies to easily schedule and send gifts with little to no administrative burden.

5. Level up with Volunteer Matching:

Groundswell’s Volunteer Matching program – sometimes known as Dollars for Doers – recognizes that some employees may not have funds to contribute, but have time – and rewards them in the same way. It’s an inclusive approach that invites everyone to participate in GivingTuesday, even those who may not be able to donate their own funds.

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12 Employee Benefits Survey Questions Modern Companies Should Ask

In today's business environment, having the right and highest performing talent is more critical than ever. With benefits packages playing a vital role in these decisions, how can companies truly gauge their effectiveness? By initiating regular employee benefits surveys.

Scroll down for a free survey template below.

Let's dive in to the importance of asking the following questions.

Is our workforce satisfied with the current employee benefits package?

Gaining insights from "how satisfied are you with our company’s benefits package?" can offer companies a quick pulse on the effectiveness of their benefits. A dip in satisfaction might signal a need for re-evaluation, especially if you're looking to maximize your budget.

How comprehensive are the employee benefits we offer?

Do employees feel that the organization covers a wide range of their needs? Asking, "do you feel our benefits package is comprehensive in its offering?" can shed light on any potential gaps in coverage.

Are we showing true commitment to Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion through our benefits?

Are the company's efforts in promoting DE&I resonating? This can be gauged by asking if the benefits genuinely support diversity and inclusion. If they aren't, here's an opportunity to collect ideas directly from your employees.

Read more about how to make sure your giving program is equitable and inclusive.

Do our benefits reflect our company culture and values?

The question, "do you feel our benefits package supports our cultural values?" will highlight any potential discrepancies in practicing what you're preaching.

Did you know? Two-thirds of employees say it’s important for a company to align to their values.

Are we catering to the needs of a remote or multi-location workforce?

With remote work on the rise, is the company adapting its benefits accordingly? It's essential to find out if employees feel supported, regardless of their work setting.

Would employees recommend the company based on our benefits?

This is an easy one to skip, but it's a great question to ask. See how influential your benefits package is for employee referrals. Determining if employees would advocate for the company based on its benefits can be a key metric for recruitment.

How do specific benefit categories fare?

By querying satisfaction levels across various benefits – physical health, social impact, mental health, financial health, and fringe benefits – can companies discern which areas are thriving and which need enhancement?

What additional benefits do employees desire?

Is there a particular benefit that could make a difference in employee satisfaction and retention? Discovering this can be as straightforward as asking, "if you could choose one benefit not currently offered, what would it be?"

If your workforce desires a more meaningful benefit, see why decentralizing your corporate philanthropy strategy can achieve greater impact at scale.

How often should I send an employee survey about our benefits?

While every business has their own set of unique needs, conducing a quarterly employee survey at minimum can help you get a pulse check.

There will be some natural and unplanned peaks in valleys throughout the year that can drastically affect employee morale and company culture. By proactively seeking feedback through surveys, companies can foster a culture of continuous improvement, ensuring they remain at the forefront of employee satisfaction.

What are some affordable benefit options we can provide employees?

Corporate matching or giving programs can be a low-cost addition to your benefit offering that supports your employees’ unique passions and perspectives through charitable giving and boosts your company’s commitment to social impact.  Groundswell offers a comprehensive solution with a simple implementation and nearly zero administration burden.

[Free Template] Employee Benefits Survey Questions

  1. How satisfied are you with our company’s benefits package?
  2. Do you feel our benefits package is comprehensive in its offering?
  3. Do you feel our benefits package supports our cultural values?
  4. Do you feel our benefits package supports our commitment to Diversity & Inclusion?
  5. Do you feel our benefits package supports our remote or multi-location workforce?
  6. How likely are you to recommend applying based on our benefits package?
  7. How satisfied are you with our physical health benefits (i.e. health care, sick leave, etc)?
  8. How satisfied are you with our social impact benefits (i.e. corporate matching, volunteering, etc)?
  9. How satisfied are you with our mental health benefits (i.e. vacation time, EAP, etc)?
  10. How satisfied are you with our financial health benefits? (i.e. retirement, student loan assistance, etc)
  11. How satisfied are you with our fringe benefits and perks? (i.e. fitness subsidies, stipends, etc)
  12. If you could choose one benefit not currently offered, what would it be?
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