In cooperatively breeding vertebrate societies, contributions to offspring care can vary greatly between group members. Kin selection theory predicts that cooperation will be favoured when directed towards relatives and when the cost to benefit ratio is low. The fitness costs of helping in turn depend on the impact of energetic investments in care on future reproductive success, which is likely to vary between helpers. For example, investments may impact more on a young helper, which needs to invest energy in growth and is an inexperienced forager. We investigated how a key predictor of cost, food availability (estimated using rainfall), influences helping behaviour in the banded mongoose, Mungos mungo. In this cooperative carnivore, a variable number of group members breed while almost all help to rear the communal litter. Nonbreeding females and juvenile males helped less when food was scarce, reflecting the potentially high costs of weight loss and reduced growth on survival and future reproductive success. In contrast, adult males maintained their investment in care as food supply decreased, probably because body condition has relatively little impact on male reproductive success in this species. Breeding females (with pups in the communal litter) also maintained their helping effort as food supply decreased. Although mothers invested highly in care, there was no evidence that they preferentially cared for their own pups, probably because synchronized birthing scrambles maternity cues. Patterns of care in the banded mongoose thus seem to reflect the benefits gained from helping and the long-term fitness costs to the helper.