Donors Loosen Purse Strings, but Inflation Blunts Gains

Giving USA finds many American feeling optimistic, committed to philanthropy

Gifts to religious groups fell 1.7%, or 4.7% after inflation, in 2011. Gifts to religious groups fell 1.7%, or 4.7% after inflation, in 2011.

Moderate overall increases in charitable giving last year suggest that Americans are feeling better about their personal financial situations and philanthropy continues to be a core value worthy of their support, according to Giving USA's annual report on philanthropy, released Wednesday.

Total charitable giving increased by 4% in 2011 from 2010, to an estimated $298.4 billion, the report said.

Giving by individuals was up by 3.9% last year, to approximately $217.8 billion. Bequests grew by 12.2% to $24.4 billion last year, with 85% of this amount coming from itemized estates.

However, some of the shine comes off this good news when the figures are adjusted for inflation. Overall giving grew by 0.9%, individual giving by 0.8% and bequests by 8.8%.

As a result, the value of the increased dollars to charities was about on par with the dollars they had received in 2010, the report said.

“This presents a real challenge for charities, many of which continue to provide services and programming at the same level or higher than in the past,” it said.

Giving by foundations increased by 1.8% (it fell 1.3%, adjusted for inflation in 2011), and corporate giving held nearly steady, down 0.1% (down 3.1% after inflation).

The Great Recession still casts a shadow over charitable giving. The report said 2010 and 2011 saw the second slowest average rate of growth in any two-year period following all recessions since 1971, with the exception of the period following the World Trade Center attacks in 2001.

Other findings in the new report:

  • Giving to religion took a hit last year, decreasing by 1.7% (-4.7%, adjusted for inflation). The report said various analysts had found an overall downward trend in giving to religious organizations, particularly among certain Christian denominations.
  • In contrast, giving to education grew by 4% (0.9%) in 2011, with contributions to higher education institutions enjoying especially strong growth.
  • Giving to arts, culture and humanities increased by 4.1% (1%). The Walton Family Foundation made history with an $800 million cash donation to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas, the largest cash gift to an art museum ever recorded in the U.S., according to the report.
  • Pharmaceutical companies’ operating foundations accounted for the bulk of the 9% increase in giving to individuals in 2011, with in-kind gifts of medications through their Patient Assistance Programs to patients in need.
  • Million-dollar-plus donations to continuing cleanup efforts in the Gulf of Mexico from the 2010 oil spill boosted giving last year to environmental and animal organizations by 4.6% (1.4%).
  • Giving to international affairs grew by 7.6% (4.4%) last year.
  • Public-society benefit organizations saw an increase of 4% (0.9%) in donations in 2011.
  • Giving to human services last year rose by 2.5% (-0.6%).
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