Charity Choices

A Resource for Donors

How much is given? By whom? For what?

       Americans give more than $1 billion a day to charities: a total of $410 billion in 2017. This figure includes giving by individuals, corporations and foundations. Every year the Giving Institute publishes Giving USA, an annual summary of giving in America.

Where does all this money come from?

      Individuals give away by far the most: nearly $286.7 billion in 2017, or about 70% of total giving. When you add in the nearly $37 billion given through bequests -- giving by individuals who have died -- individuals account for four of every five dollars given to charities in this country.

  • In 2014, the average adult gave $1,050; the average household gave $2,030.
  • Just over half of American households (55%) donated something to charity in 2014 (according to Indiana’s School of Philanthropy, which does the research for Giving USA). This is a big decline since 2000, when two thirds of households made donations (66.2%). 
  • The growth in giving is being driven by larger donations by fewer people.  In 2015, just 1 percent of households accounted for nearly half of all individual donations (49%).  Just 20 percent of households gave 83 percent of donations. "The decline in giving ...has raised fears that the country's economic divide is being replicated in philanthropy, with nonprofits increasingly having to rely on the wealthy," according to a 2018 article in Chronicle of Philanthropy.
  • On average, Americans give 2.1% of their disposable income to charity.

      Foundations, the second biggest source, gave $67 billion in 2017 -- 16% of total giving.  Foundation giving has more than doubled in a generation – in 1989 foundations accounted for only 6.7% of total giving. 

  • This big increase in foundation giving in part reflects the increase in economic inequality: there are many more very wealthy people -- especially baby boomers -- who can set up their own foundations or make large gifts to existing foundations.  In 2015 an amazing $41.3 billion was given to foundations.  There are now more than 76,500 foundations in the U.S., according to the Foundation Center.

      Corporations gave $20.8 billion in 2017, about 1 percent of overall pretax profit. This includes donations of cash and products. 

  • The average corporation gave about 0.8% of profits in 2015. This is considerably less than the percentage of disposable income (2.1%) given by individuals.

Who gets all this money?

  • Religious Organizations receive nearly one in three dollars – a total of about $123 billion in 2016. 
  • Education receives the second largest amount -- nearly $60 billion in 2016.  About three out of four education dollars go to 4-year colleges and universities (according to Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy).
  • Human Services received nearly $47 billion.
  • Health Organizations received about $33 billion, or 8% of the total.
  • Public-Sector Benefit Organizations (such as United Ways and Jewish Federations) received nearly $30 billion.
  • International Affairs received just over $22 billion. 
  • Arts and Cultural Organizations received about $18 billion.
  • Environmental and Animal Organizations received about $11 billion.

      Most giving goes to large organizations, according to Ann Kaplan of the Council for Financial Aid to Education.  She told the Chronicle of Philanthropy that big organizations "spend more, they have more of a case for support, and they have larger endowments."  In other words, it takes money to raise money.

      All these figures are estimates, based on data from other organizations (such as the Foundation Center), statistical models that take economic conditions into account to project how much is given, IRS data on giving, IRS annual reports submitted by charities, and other studies of giving.

      Data about giving reported to the IRS is not released until two years after donations were made. As a result, these annual giving figures are often adjusted, sometimes by a considerable amount.

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