Why do donations require special events? (or presents)

Free Software Foundation Member Kit
The trinkets I received for becoming a member of the Free Software Foundation.

I’ve been wondering about a peculiar aspect of human motivation. Why do we require a present of some sort in exchange for a donation? Let’s take NPR for example. During membership drives a donation will net the donator a hat or tote bag or something like that. But why does there have to be a prize for donation? The point of donation is that you realize some organization or cause needs your money. So why waste some of that money to get a mug? And if you wanted a mug emblazoned with the NPR logo, you could just go to the NPR store and buy it. But getting gifts must entice more people to donate or organizations wouldn’t waste money on it when they could be using all the money to cover their costs.

The same goes for Race for the Cure type events. You get people to sponsor you to give you some set amount of money contingent on you racing. But who cares whether or not you actually race? The people are presumably donating to something they believe in so why does their contribution depend upon you burning some calories?

Part of what got me wondering about this was remembering when I was around 11 years old and I got people to sponsor me based on how many laps I would swim in 2 hours. The money was going to help fund the city pool we swam in. I most got contributions of nickels and dimes per lap, but one family friend agreed to donate one dollar. Well, during the two hours I swam nearly 200 laps. My mother told me I couldn’t ask her for $200 even though she was betting on how many laps I’d do in 2 hours just like everyone else.

As an adult, I started thinking about this. OK – the people who agreed to donate some amount of money per lap must have done some calculation in their head about how many laps I might be able to swim in two hours. That was the upper bound on what they were willing to donate. So why not just donate that money? Why make me swim for two hours? And, if I went way over what they expected me to swim and they weren’t going to give me that money anyway, then why not just donate whatever was the max they were willing to give.

Philanthropy is an interesting human concept. An individual is donating money which, by definition, is giving money without getting anything in return. But they must get something in return whether it’s prestige or an NPR umbrella. And what are they getting in return when they donate based on how much physical activity someone does?