By Trevor Neilson

On the New York social scene, philanthropy is the primary organizing force. As any New Yorker can attest, it is very often causes that are the reason people gather in ballrooms and concert halls, and if managed correctly, these events can raise enormous amounts of money for important efforts, both in New York and around the world.

Why is it that philanthropy is at the heart of so many of these gatherings? I think the answer tells us a lot about human nature, and a lot about how smart companies will deepen their relationship with their most important customers.

Philanthropy feels good — and it should. While there is a certain school of thought that suggests that philanthropy should be anonymous, and sacrificial in nature, I disagree. Our brains and our bodies feel good when we help other people — it is a physiological fact. If you haven’t experienced it, go pick up some litter in the park, help an elderly person cross the street, or send a check to your local homeless shelter. You will feel good, and this is a profoundly good thing for our world. Altruism is embedded in our humanity.

Being thanked for philanthropy also feels good — and it should. When a philanthropist walks up on the stage at the Waldorf Astoria in New York and is applauded by 500 of their friends and colleagues for their work to make the community a better place, the chances of that philanthropist doing more of it increase. Even better, dozens of people in that room may think to themselves, “Hey, I’d like to be on that stage some day” and decide to get involved themselves. Everyone likes a pat on the back, and we should do as much as we can to reward those who decide to give back.

People wanting to become more philanthropic, and being rewarded for being more philanthropic, is a profoundly positive cycle. I refer to this as “Aspirational Altruism.”

Aspirational Altruism is at its a core a simple belief; people aspire to be associated with other people and efforts that do good things in the world, and they aspire to do good themselves.

The same is true for companies. Smart companies are starting to understand that philanthropy is a core way of differentiating their brand from the competition.

The data supports this. According to the excellent 2011 Cone/Echo Global Corporate Responsibility Study 94% of consumers are likely to switch brands to one that supports a cause, if both brands are similar in price and quality.

Companies around the world are now starting to see philanthropy and cause marketing as a core way of engaging their consumers and beating the competition. Corporate philanthropy is moving from being an optional, non-strategic corporate function to being a core part of many companies marketing strategies.

As consumers become more sophisticated about philanthropy, they will demand to see impact. The company who can prove to consumers that its products are making a clear impact on the issues it chooses to focus on will deepen its relationship with consumers in an exciting way.

Whether it is a New Yorker at a fundraising gala, a company seeking to beat the competition, or a customer trying to decide between two brands, we all aspire to altruism. It feels good to do good things in the world, and to be appreciated for it. By encouraging this cycle of giving and recognition, we can encourage the most powerful forces in our society to help address some of our biggest problems.

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post