Charity Commons: Civilization Built on Giving, Not Competition

The “Charity Commons” Series features sector experts sharing their perspective on the interaction of giving and the understanding of human flourishing: science, philosophy, human behavior, spirituality and religion, etc.


This post was written by Dr. Michael Kraus, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Yale School of Management. His research covers areas of cooperative and competitive human interaction, including charitable giving behavior.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection might be the single most well-known theory in the history of science. For you, the theory might conjure up notions of animals rapidly adjusting their behaviors to harsh environments, and active, often aggressive, competition between groups for the right to survive and reproduce. This conception of evolution is so familiar, it often enters into discussions of work and social life—emphasizing our need to out-compete adversaries to achieve desirable career or personal outcomes.


If you think of evolution in these terms it might surprise you then that Darwin thought of it differently. It was Darwin who insisted that individuals would survive through cooperation and not aggression. In 1871, he famously wrote that “Sympathy would have been increased through natural selection, for those species with the most sympathetic members would flourish best and rear the greatest number of offspring1.”


For Darwin, it is cooperation and not competition that is the key to flourishing.


No matter your worldview, it is becoming more clear from all philosophical angles that cooperation is better. Cooperation is a natural state for individuals in our daily lives, and this is reflected in the latest scientific studies of cooperation: People normatively give about 20% of a reward they earned in an experiment to strangers even when there is no chance of future contact2; Individuals tend to rise in status in organizations not because they are aggressive and confrontational, but instead, because they are outgoing, social, and well-connected with other employees3; and, Individuals told to give away a reward to others feel happier than when spending the reward on themselves4. Together, these studies indicate that people are wired for cooperation, and that giving is the key to flourishing and happiness.


Now, people cooperate with each other in ways that could not have been conceived of during Darwin’s time. Global giving is up in many countries. According to the Giving Institute, individuals across the United States gave approximately $258.51 billion to charitable organizations last year—the most donated since we started keeping records. At the opposite end of the spectrum, historical analyses indicate that levels of violence and aggression across human history have seen steady declines—homicide rates are at their all-time global low5. As societies advance, cooperation grows.


As humans express their natural tendency to cooperate they must also find tools that enhance their ability to efficiently connect with those in need. This is where Charityvest has the potential for its greatest impact. With technological advancements our capacity to give expands as does our circle of individuals and groups who we cooperate with. This expansion poses a significant challenge: With less face-to-face contact, how can individuals be sure that their giving is doing the absolute most good that it can? By making giving fun, easy, secure, and well informed (for more details, go here), Charityvest has the potential to unlock the intuitive cooperation in every individual.


Additional Reading

1Darwin, C. (2013). The expression of the emotions in man and animals. Courier Corporation. 

2Rand, D. G., & Nowak, M. A. (2013). Human cooperation. Trends in cognitive sciences17(8), 413-425.

3Anderson, C., & Kilduff, G. J. (2009). The pursuit of status in social groups. Current Directions in Psychological Science18(5), 295-298.

4Dunn, E., & Norton, M. (2013). Happy money: The science of smarter spending. Simon and Schuster.

5Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. Penguin.