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Canadians are no strangers to the act of giving back.

In the late 1800s, Canada went through the “golden age of philanthropy,” with the country’s first charitable trust — Massey Foundation — emerging in 1896. From then on, charitable giving across the country only continued to grow, leading us to the innovative industry of giving that we know (and love) now. 

So, Canadians have always been drawn to charitable giving.

But where does that desire to “give back” truly come from?

The Human Nature of Generosity

While it’s true that Canadians are considered to be a kind group of folks, the human tendency to give goes far deeper than a stereotype of “niceness.”  

Studies suggest that humans are built with the “biological hardware required for generosity,” a trait our evolutionary ancestors leaned on to form bonds, build social systems, and keep their species alive (and thriving). 

As humans, it’s in our nature to give. But it’s in our psychology, too. 

The Psychology Behind Giving

Researchers have been studying the psychology of giving for decades, uncovering a number of psychological motivators for generosity. 

These concepts — what we’re calling the psychology behind giving — offer a window into the human mind, helping us understand the things that motivate and inspire our behaviour (both consciously and otherwise). 

However, regardless of which academic paper you read or what field of psychology you’re in, there is one idea that unites every motivation for generosity: 

People give because they care. 

1. Giving is Good For Health and Well-Being

One of the greatest psychological motivators for giving also happens to be the simplest: people give because it makes them feel good both mentally and physically. 

In a study comparing the health and well-being of older adults, those who gave their time through volunteering reported a “greater quality of life.” Another similar study revealed that participants who frequently helped others felt “greater vitality and self-esteem” compared to those who didn’t often give their time to others. 

On the more “physical” side of things, giving back to others is associated with better physical health overall. People who frequently volunteer their time are found to be less at risk of heart disease, stroke, and depression… and they’re even thought to live longer, too! 

2. Giving Offers An Outlet for Empathy

Psychologists also consider giving and generosity to be motivated by strong, positive feelings, most notably feelings like empathy. 

Defined by The Greater Good Science Center as “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling,” empathy is thought to be one of the main reasons people exhibit altruistic behaviour. Besides motivating people to give, empathy is a great skill to have because the more you practice it, the better you get at it. One study suggests that people who see empathy as a “malleable skill” are more likely to actually be empathetic, giving their time and attention to those in need. 

Dr. Jamil Zaki of Stanford University summarized it best: “Empathy is the psychological ‘superglue’ that connects people and undergirds cooperation and kindness.” 

3. Giving Makes Us Feel Connected

Finally, generosity is thought to be motivated by the psychological desire to connect with those closest to us.

One study explored the impact of connection on generosity by priming participants with different languages before asking about a charity. The participants who were talked to with connection-promoting words like “community” were more interested in giving their time and money than those who were talked to with neutral language. 

Rima Touré-Tillery, assistant professor at the Kellogg School of Management, further explored this idea in a proximity-based study. Participants who read about “world shrinking technology” were more likely to donate to a charity halfway around the world than participants who read about a grueling long-distance flight. 

Humans just want to feel connected to other humans — whether that “closeness” is real or perceived — and giving back is one way to satisfy that innate desire. 

Mini Case Study: Bell Let’s Talk

A prime example of leveraging the psychology of giving is Bell Let’s Talk Day, an initiative “dedicated to moving mental health forward in Canada.” 

Historically, the initiative has been led by Canadians taking action for the cause, with Bell donating $0.05 every time a Canadian called or texted on the Bell network or used “#BellLetsTalk” on social media. (Talk about making the world a better place with every transaction!)

Since its inception in 2010, Bell Let’s Talk has generated millions of dollars for Canadian mental health initiatives of all kinds – and they did it through millions of micro-donations, proving that taking even the smallest action can have a powerful impact.

So, why is Bell Let’s Talk so effective? Because it perfectly combines all three psychological motivators for generosity and giving! 

  1. Well-Being → Since mental well-being is one of the main psychological benefits of generosity, focusing a campaign on promoting health and well-being is directly connected. People feel good when they give, so why not give to help others feel better, too? 
  2. Empathy → The statistics and stories that Bell Let’s Talk shares can be shocking, eliciting feelings of both sympathy and empathy for many people. Giving back to Bell Let’s Talk empowers people to make a difference in an empathy-first way, leading with a deep desire to make an impact. 
  3. Connection → Bell Let’s Talk focuses on mental health for Canadians, something every Canadian can relate to in some way or another. Offering people the ability to help their fellow Canadians fosters a deep-seated sense of identity and creates an unbreakable sense of connection.

A Reminder About Generosity

Despite evidence suggesting humans are generous by nature — and that we have psychological reasons for giving back — the way we apply that generosity is far less black and white. 

The University of Notre Dame’s “Science of Generosity” project offers two helpful reminders about generosity: 

  1. Generosity is not about doing the “most,” it’s about doing good. 
  2. Generosity can include giving money. But, you can also be generous with your “possessions, time, attention, aid, encouragement, [or] emotional availability.” 

When it comes to giving back, there is no “right” way to do it. 

Give back what you can in the way that you can. 

Because it will make a difference. 

Giving and generosity are inherently rooted in our ‘humanness’, both in our biological evolution and our identity as Canadians. In addition to people’s evolutionary knack for generosity, there are also psychological motivators that encourage us to give, from enhancing our well-being and longevity to giving us a sense of connection and belonging. 

At Hope Factory, our fundraising platform is intentionally crafted to make giving easy, so our customers and in turn, their customers, can feel good about the impact they’re making without adding anything else to their already full plates. 

That’s because we believe in one other powerful motivator for generosity: 

People give because they truly care.