Share of Americans Who Give Hits a 20-Year Low: What That Means for Fundraising

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Only Half of Households Gave to Charity in 2018

A study out this week confirms a trend that has long worried experts who follow philanthropy: Donations to charitable causes are reaching record highs, but the giving is done by a smaller and smaller slice of the population.

For the first time in nearly two decades, only half of U.S. households donated to a charity in 2018.

Haleluya Hadero, who follows philanthropy for the Associated Press in partnership with the Chronicle to expand coverage of the nonprofit world, provided key details and analysis on the biennial study by Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. The data comes from a survey that has been tracking the giving patterns of more than 9,000 households since 2000, when 66 percent of U.S. households donated to a charitable organization. That number dropped to 49.6 percent in 2018, the latest year with comprehensive figures from those households.

Many factors are contributing to the decline. The percentage of Americans who give to religious causes has decreased in tandem with attendance at worship services as the number of Americans not affiliated with any religion grows. Separately, the share of Americans who give to secular causes began to drop following the economic turbulence of the Great Recession, but it hasn’t bounced back. It reached a new low — 42 percent — in 2018, the study found.

What we don’t know yet: Did the pandemic create a “shock” to normal patterns of giving that could at least temporarily disrupt the long-term trend of fewer Americans’ giving? Una Osili, the associate dean for research and international programs at the Lilly School, told me in January that new giving habits may stick when people start going back to familiar patterns of consumption.

Some experts say it’s time to rethink how we talk about the share of Americans who give. Laura MacDonald, who now chairs the Giving USA Foundation, said in an interview last year that “if we broaden our time horizon and look over a broader period of time, it’s actually a higher percentage” who give. “We may see that Americans are expressing their generosity in any number of ways, which might or might not be counted in our formal philanthropic economy.”

The new report has its limitations. It measures giving to nonprofit organizations but doesn’t capture donations made through informal crowdfunding campaigns, which tend to draw younger audiences. It also doesn’t measure contributions of goods and services.

The study says declining levels of trust among Americans for most institutions and each other may also contribute to the move away from charitable giving. (Scroll on for more on the trust issue facing nonprofits.) That mistrust is especially pronounced among millennials, which could cause another layer of challenges for charitable organizations.

The data shows a majority of households headed by a person with a college or a graduate degree who was married or widowed gave to charity. Wealth was also a factor: Nearly eight out of 10 households with more than $200,000 of wealth contributed to a nonprofit in 2018, the study said. By contrast, fewer than four in 10 households with wealth less than $50,000 made donations.

“The overall pie [in giving] is slowly moving towards the ultra-wealthy,” John List, an economics professor at the University of Chicago who studies giving, told Haleluya. He added that this shift can be dangerous. “Rich people give to causes that rich people want to give to,” he said. “You have a very different supply of goods and services from the charitable community when the rich people give versus when the middle-class or lower-class gives.”

Read the full story for more on what charities can do about this trend.

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