that some people place conditions on their willingness and desire to give to others in need?

“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university professor over the last 15 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].

Q: Why is it that some people place conditions on their willingness and desire to give to others in need?

I work for a social service agency, and each holiday season, we ask for donations to help needy individuals and families. It seems there are many people willing to give, but many times, these donors seem to put conditions on who they’re willing to help and in what way. One donor said that they were only interested in “playing Santa” by buying a toy for a child, but we have many elderly people that have basic needs like food. I thought giving to others was supposed to be an act of unconditional generosity!

A: Your question is a timely one. This time of year we’re inundated with solicitations to offer donations to a wide-variety of causes – all in the spirit of compassionate giving. We celebrate our Thanksgiving Holiday by giving thanks for our blessings and many share their blessings with less fortunate others. There are many compassionate souls among us who give freely to those in need without placing restrictions or stipulations on how their donations are utilized. However, there are also those who only appear eager to give in cases where their own terms and conditions are met.

Essentially, our willingness to give is driven by one of two underlying motivations. Some give selflessly, while others are driven by more selfish motives. The act of selfless giving is altruistic, pure and unconditional. These givers offer assistance to others in any way possible – donating their time, money or resources freely and unconditionally. But selfish givers are driven by egoistic motives that are often contingent upon the personal rewards gained by the donor themselves (see 8/29/08 column on Helping Behavior for details).

For the selfless and altruistic giver, personal rewards come from the act of giving – in and of itself. The pleasure gained by this type of giving relates to bettering the life or condition of those in need and can be thought of as “other-focused” giving. But for selfish and egoistic givers, rewards are connected to their own personal fulfillment of ego satisfaction and personal recognition – making the act of giving “self-focused.” The egoistic giver places their own personal opinions, desires and needs above that of their recipient because their act of giving is fundamentally offered as a means of self-glorification.

Consider the following scenario, for example. We know that many needy children will greet Christmas morning without toys, decorations or Christmas trees. Some organizations (i.e., Toys for Tots) gather donations to provide these children with gifts. We also know how personally rewarding it may be to shop for a needy child, picking out that special and exciting toy that will bring a smile to his/her face on Christmas morning. But what if an agency prefers that we donate a discount store gift-card instead – thereby also giving the parent of that needy child the gift of empowerment and joy in having the ability to select what, they alone, know to be their child’s heart’s desire? Would we be less willing to give because we are turning over the selection of the toy to the parent?

Other agencies may have “wish lists” this time of year from needy individuals and families that they serve. At times, those interested in giving are asked to select a recipient at random. And while it’s certainly fun to shop for toys for children – would we be less inclined or disappointed if the recipient we selected was an elderly lady in need of cat-food or canned goods?

It’s important to realize that the act of selfless giving is born out of compassion and unconditional love. If, upon sincere personal reflection, we are inhibited by feelings of reluctance, contingency and conditionality, our donation cannot and will not contribute to the benefit of others, as the spirit in which it was offered was not pure. It is not so much the gift – as the energy behind the gift – that holds the power of positive transformation. When we give to others to benefit ourselves, we attach a rider of negativity and impurity to our offerings. When we give from the heart – freely and unconditionally – our donation does more than fulfill an unmet need. It comes to the recipient wrapped in light and glows in the heart of those lives we’ve touched. Indeed, it is the very thought that counts.