Donate! It’s proven to make you happy!

Published by Elsbeth Takkenberg on

Some weeks ago I was at a party, with lots of new people to meet. It was a very nice party: we watched football on a big screen, had a barbecue, and kids were playing in the garden. I started talking to a lady I’ve never met before, and of course she asked me what kind of work I do. Normally I adjust my reply to the person in front of me, because the plain answer ‘fundraiser’ can get you in strange places. So I replied: ‘I’m a fundraiser. I generate money for extra projects, and focus on major gifts and legacies”. I was quite happy with my answer and wanted to take another bite from my meal, when my new friend concluded: “Aha, you beg for money by selling lies to people”. My heart missed a beat and my meal suddenly tasted not that good anymore. This conclusion was exactly the opposite of by idea of fundraising. Well, not quite the opposite because begging for money was somehow true. But I was not selling lies, I was selling happiness to donors. Because: donating makes people happy. And I could proof this, too. Scientifically!

In my everlasting search for different motives to give, I found Jeroen van de Ven’s thesis ‘Psychological Sentiments and Economic Behaviour’ (2003), about giving behaviour. And hey! Research proves that giving does make people happy. In this thesis, economical models are combined with ideas from psychology and learns us that social status is obtained by giving, people are appreciated because they give. And by giving to others, these others start giving too. This whole circle of giving and being appreciated makes people happy. So, we fundraisers are selling happiness by making people donate to our charity. Let’s find out why.


Economists state that human beings are egocentric. They are only interested in money and possessions. But, if the economics are right, why do people tip the waiter, why do people give presents on birthdays, and why do people donate to charities? An important explanation fort his giving behaviour, is the appreciation people get from their social group for their giving behaviour. People feel good about themselves, because others do, and this makes them happy. The gift should be visible, so the social group can take notice of it.

Plaquettes in hospitals, names of donors in annual reports and on websites: charities can offer sponsorpackages to help donors feel good about themselves by making the donation public. The power of the sponsorship package is a fact.


Another remarkable aspect of giving behaviour: most of the time people return a gift after having received one. The person receiving the gift is in debt by the giver, because he expects something in return. Social pressure, and the wish to be appreciated by your social group, makes the receiver give something in return. A thank you call, visit or letter from a charity could be a gift in return. And receiving this gift from the charity could make the donor give again, because it’s his turn. The power of stewardship is a fact.

Don’t over do it

Sponsorship packages and stewardship can turn against you if it’s not done right. Donors want to be appreciated because of their altruistic behaviour. Rewarding people for being altruistic, can be very dangerous, because rewards can also attract people who are (only)  interested in the reward, and the altruist is not any different. And donors who receive an impersonal thank you letter may feel less special because of the lack of social status, and because of this: less appreciated by the charity.

I know that this blog might seem bluntly, and probably the thesis of Van der Ven is too much to handle on an average weekday like this. What really counts, is that I have a strong feeling that people do get happy when they give. I see it happen all the time, when I talk to donors, when I listen to pledgers. I don’t need a thesis to feel right about that.

The thing that crossed my mind since I have read the thesis, is something I want to share with you. Working for charities makes me feel happy. But do I feel happy because I help to make the world a better place, or because my friends and family like me for doing this? In the end, I don’t care, really. I’m full of positive energy after a meeting with donors, when they were informed about the chance their gift has made in the world. So this should have been my reply at that party….

Elsbeth Takkenberg

Elsbeth works as senior fundraiser at VUmc Cancer Center Amsterdam. She has previously worked for Medecins Sans Frontieres, Plan Nederland and the University of Amsterdam. She is specialized in major gifts and legacies and is passionate about building strong and long lasting relationships between NGO's and donors.


Jeroen Hogenhout · June 22, 2012 at 12:40

It’s true! Along with a psychologist I wrote an article about how come donating makes us happy. It is published in Vakblad Fondsenwerving and on my website. It is in Dutch however but for the people who can understand Dutch I will add a link to the article.


Mike Zserdin · June 22, 2012 at 15:28

Elsbeth, I think you’re happy raising money because of the the help you bring to the world. Not only do you change the lives of those that receive the money, you bring joy to those that give.

Generous people are the most fulfilled.

I shared some of this in http://www.generositymanifesto.com If you happen to look at it, I’d appreciate your feedback.

Best regards and stay at it. You’re work is refreshing the world.


Elsbeth Takkenberg · June 28, 2012 at 13:38

Dear Mike,
Thanks a lot for sending me this link. I will read the manifesto with great pleasure, and send you my feedback.

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Eileen Benson · October 29, 2019 at 21:00

It was interesting when you said that donating has been scientifically proven to make people happy. Lately I’ve been feeling pretty depressed about the state of the world. Reading your article made me excited to find an African wildlife preservation group to donate money to!

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