Natural Philanthropy: A New Evolutionary Framework Explaining Diverse Experimental Results and Informing Fundraising Practice

12 Pages Posted: 23 Jun 2017

Date Written: June 2017


Philanthropic decision-making is important both for its potential to provide insight into human behaviour and for its economic significance. In recent years, investigations of charitable-giving behaviour have expanded substantially, including explorations from a variety of disciplinary perspectives such as economics, marketing, sociology, public administration, anthropology, evolutionary biology, political science and psychology. These investigations have resulted in a wealth of experimental results with each investigation accompanied by a discussion of potential theoretical implications. Most commonly, the various theories employed are helpful with regard to the narrow result of the investigation, but are not always useful in explaining the wider universe of results. Taking a comprehensive view of charitable-giving behaviour is thus limited to either employing a wide assortment of overlapping theoretical models, selectively applying each to fit individual phenomena, or merely referencing an ad hoc assortment of potential motivations. This circumstance suggests the value of a more unified, comprehensive approach to understanding the complete range of experimental and empirical results in charitable giving. This article proposes a comprehensive framework for philanthropic decision-making using a simple evolutionary approach incorporating interrelated fitness-enhancing strategies. The framework is then used in an extensive review of experimental and other empirical results in philanthropic decision-making. This review supports the framework proposition that giving depends on the tangibility of a gift’s impact on altruism (direct or code), reciprocity (transactional or friendship) and possessions relative to its alternatives. Five example principles of fundraising practice demonstrate the practical applicability of this proposition: advance the donor hero story (tangibility of direct or code altruism); make the charity like family (friendship reciprocity); provide compatible publicity and benefits (transactional reciprocity); minimize perceived loss (possessions); and manage decision avoidance (relative to its alternatives). Understanding philanthropic behaviour from this perspective provides explanation and guidance for a wide range of charitable-giving behaviours and fundraising practices even in areas less amenable to traditional experimental investigation, such as charitable bequests and major gifts.

Suggested Citation

James, Russell N., Natural Philanthropy: A New Evolutionary Framework Explaining Diverse Experimental Results and Informing Fundraising Practice (June 2017). Palgrave Communications, Vol. 3, 2017, Available at SSRN: or

Russell N. James (Contact Author)

Texas Tech University ( email )

2500 Broadway
Lubbock, TX 79409
United States

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