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Explaining unconditional cooperation, such as donations to charities or contributions to public goods, continues to present a problem. One possibility is that cooperation can pay through developing a reputation that makes one more likely to be chosen for a profitable cooperative partnership, a process termed competitive altruism (CA) or reputation-based partner choice. Here, we show, to our knowledge, for the first time, that investing in a cooperative reputation can bring net benefits through access to more cooperative partners. Participants played a public goods game (PGG) followed by an opportunity to select a partner for a second cooperative game. We found that those who gave more in the PGG were more often selected as desired partners and received more in the paired cooperative game. Reputational competition was even stronger when it was possible for participants to receive a higher payoff from partner choice. The benefits of being selected by a more cooperative partner outweighed the costs of cooperation in the reputation building phase. CA therefore provides an alternative to indirect reciprocity as an explanation for reputation-building behaviour. Furthermore, while indirect reciprocity depends upon individuals giving preference to those of good standing, CA can explain unconditional cooperation.