Giving USA

I just attended a Bradley Center panel in Washington, DC on the release of the annual Giving USA report. The takeaway is that giving is down but not too much. Things could be worse. Things will look up.

However, the panel and audience did a good job of unpacking some of the numbers. For instance, ten percent of all giving is comprised of gifts to grantmaking foundations. Because foundations are required to distribute only five percent of their assets annually such gifts are unlikely to have as great an impact on charity as one would imagine. It would be interesting to know whether the percentage of donor gifts to grantmaking foundations is increasing over time. However, it is hard to establish a trend when a tiny number of donors (e.g. Gates, Bloomberg, Soros) can have a major impact on the total amount of money going to foundations. Giving USA researchers note that even the total amount of giving by individuals is affected by a few gifts by high-net worth individuals. In 2009, individuals gave 75 percent of the $303.75 billion in U.S. charitable giving. (The remainder comes from foundations [13%], bequests [8%] and corporations [4%]. However, a mere five donors made gifts totaling $1.59 billion and most of that money went into their foundations.

Another interesting point: Giving USA acquires its data from the IRS, which acquires its data from taxpayers who itemize their contributions in order to take deductions. Using this data, Giving USA researchers have determined that donors are increasing their giving to international affairs, which they attribute to the aftermath of 9/11, the South Asian tsunami, earthquakes in Haiti and Chile and other signs of trouble in the wider world. However, Giving USA figures underestimate the extent of American generosity overseas, argued the Hudson Institute’s Carol Adelman, who was in the audience. She said that’s because its research does not take into account personal gifts to individuals (e.g. overseas remittances) for which the IRS does not grant a tax deduction. My gift to a cousin in Manila whose house was flooded by a typhoon has no way of being counted by Giving USA because it is not tax deductible.

There is much else to be learned from the Giving USA survey–not only what it reports, but what it does not report.

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