U.S. charitable giving hit record $471.44 billion in 2020 amid pandemic, economic turmoil

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Americans remained among the world’s most charitable people last year, despite pandemic-induced shutdowns, layoffs and economic turmoil, says a new survey released Tuesday.

Individuals, bequests, foundations and corporations gave an estimated $471.44 billion to U.S. charities in 2020, according to “Giving USA 2021: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2020.”

“Total charitable giving grew 5.1% measured in current dollars over the revised total of $448.66 billion contributed in 2019. Adjusted for inflation, total giving increased 3.8%,” states the survey, which has been published each year since 1956 and is billed as “the longest running, most comprehensive report on philanthropy in America.”

There was a 2.2% increase in individual giving, to $324.10 billion. While this was the highest total dollar figure to date, the Giving USA report said it “comprised less than 70% of total giving for the third consecutive year.”

Charitable foundations donated an estimated $88.5 billion, a 17% increase over 2019’s total and the category’s “highest-ever dollar amount,” according to the survey. Bequests totaled $41.19 billion in 2020, up 10.3% from 2019, but corporate giving dropped 6.1%, to $16.88 billion, last year.

Giving to religion — one of the largest donation categories — totaled $131.08 billion in 2020, up 1% before being adjusted for inflation. After those adjustments, religious giving actually was down 0.2% from 2019, the survey reported.

Donations to education and human services rose in 2020, with education getting a 9% hike, to $71.34 billion, aided by mega-donor MacKenzie Scott’s gifts to historically Black colleges and universities, as well as donations to American Indians, Hispanic communities and community colleges. Human services giving increased by 9.7% last year, totaling $65.14 billion.

Donations to environmental and animal welfare charities in 2020 increased 11.6%, to $16.14 billion, while donations to arts, culture, and humanities groups fell 7.5%, to $19.47 billion.

In an interview with The Washington Times, Laura MacDonald, chair of Giving USA Foundation, credited the end-of-year rebound in the stock market for much of the rise in giving.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the strength of giving in 2020,” said Ms. MacDonald, who is a principal and founder of consulting firm Benefactor Group. “I think that to a large degree, the recovery of the stock market, which really built-up momentum toward the end of the year played a significant role in that, particularly in some of the largest gifts that are given.”

Ms. MacDonald also emphasized the importance of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act in keeping the economy afloat, creating what she called a “strong environment” for giving.

“Without the CARES Act, we would have seen in an even steeper decline in GDP, we might not have seen the return of the equity market, we likely would have seen a greater decline in disposable personal income,” she said.

Una Osili, associate dean for research and international programs at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, worked on the study and pointed to several factors for the leveling off in religious giving. She cited lockdowns that canceled religious services as a primary factor.

“Reduced attendance often leads to less contributions,” Ms. Osili said, adding that congregations that ramped up an online presence fared better.

She also cited the rise of “nones,” people without religious affiliation, as a factor, and a Gallup report in March that found for the first time fewer than 50% of Americans said they were affiliated with a religious community.

“Younger households are less likely to attend services and affiliate,” Ms. Osili said. “A very large [part] of charitable giving overall, is correlated with attending services frequently, and also [with religious] affiliation.”

“We do have this concern that as fewer households affiliate and attend services, that has an impact on their giving to congregations,” she added. “So there is concern about religious giving, growing more slowly over time than it has in the past.”

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