Kin selection theory has been the central model for understanding the evolution of cooperative breeding, where non-breeders help bear the cost of rearing young. Recently, the dominance of this idea has been questioned; particularly in obligate cooperative breeders where breeding without help is uncommon and seldom successful. In such systems, the direct benefits gained through augmenting current group size have been hypothesized to provide a tractable alternative (or addition) to kin selection. However, clear empirical tests of the opposing predictions are lacking. Here, we provide convincing evidence to suggest that kin selection and not group augmentation accounts for decisions of whether, where and how often to help in an obligate cooperative breeder, the chestnut-crowned babbler (Pomatostomus ruficeps). We found no evidence that group members base helping decisions on the size of breeding units available in their social group, despite both correlational and experimental data showing substantial variation in the degree to which helpers affect productivity in units of different size. By contrast, 98 per cent of group members with kin present helped, 100 per cent directed their care towards the most related brood in the social group, and those rearing half/full-sibs helped approximately three times harder than those rearing less/non-related broods. We conclude that kin selection plays a central role in the maintenance of cooperative breeding in this species, despite the apparent importance of living in large groups.