Perhaps helped with several mega-gifts, American donors in 2015 were more generous than ever, according to the 61st issue of “Giving USA,” the annual report on charitable activity in the United States.
• Total giving surpassed $373.3 billion, with several categories tracked by the report reflecting very significant increases in giving — both in real dollars as well as in inflation-adjusted dollars. Other figures of note:
• Two-thirds of the $373 billion came from living individuals, while another $31.76 billion came from bequests and other legacy gifts;
• The largest share of the donations — $119.3 billion — went to the country’s houses of worship (including synagogues), reflecting the most money the religion category has ever received;
• Corporate philanthropy — $18.45 billion — comprised only 5 percent of 2015 giving;
• Arts and cultural nonprofits saw a 20 percent increase in giving during both 2014 and 2015, making it the seventh-largest category that donors support;
• International issues saw a remarkable 17.5 percent increase in 2015, generated primarily by several internationally-focused foundations and international corporations. The international category usually attracts massive support for international disaster relief, but in 2015 the April earthquake in Nepal was considered as the only catastrophe that donors rallied around;
• American colleges and universities saw another year of record-level giving, sparked by a $400 million gift to Harvard and a $300 million gift to Princeton, but higher education received only 70 percent of $57.48 billion, leaving us to assume that Jewish elementary and secondary schools saw solid support, too;
• Hospitals and diseases received only $29.81 billion (8 percent of the pie) but there is a prediction that donors will continue to slow down their generosity to this facet of the nonprofit world because of government programs.
These seven points should reflect significant optimism about the health of the country’s economy as we rebound from the Great Recession, knowing that giving is always considered a lagging indicator since philanthropy is usually the last obligation that people consider when times are tough.
But delving further into the report, we note three disturbing statistics: There was a very modest increase in the number of volunteers for nonprofits in 2015; total giving as a percentage of disposable personal income remains at 2 percent, reflecting that most of us are not giving to our capacity; and corporate giving as a percentage of pre-tax profits is at its lowest point in 25 years.
The one aspect of giving that attracted the most attention revolved around donor-advised funds, essentially a bank account for future giving by donors. The flourishing of such funds has caused a decrease in giving to America’s family foundations, and this has prompted some concerns about oversight of the funds at the federal level. Still, we are seeing — on average — approximately 22 percent of donor-advised assets distributed to legitimate charities, a figure substantially higher than minimum-required payouts from foundations.
What does the “Giving USA” report mean to Jews?
It is a wake-up call that giving is very much alive and well. But most nonprofits are still uncomfortable with changing their messages to attract more widespread support. In addition, while some of the wealthiest Jews contribute to Jewish priorities, they also direct enormous sums to museums, medical research and higher education. Perhaps reflective of this, giving to Jewish Federations nationwide — when taken over a 25-year period — has declined by 37.6 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars.
I’d suggest that we collectively consider what could happen to total giving if each of us gave up a simple extravagance each week — such as a $5 cup of Starbucks coffee — and directed those funds to philanthropy. With that very easy move, every Jewish nonprofit would see an immediate infusion of support and the figures that “Giving USA” reports in the future would change markedly.
Robert Evans, who sits on the editorial review board of Giving USA, is founder of Evans Consulting Group, a Willow Grove, Pa.-based firm that helps nonprofits address their strategic and fundraising goals.