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Financial Planning > Charitable Giving

Americans’ Charitable Giving Set Record in 2015

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American donors contributed an estimated $373 billion to charity in 2015, setting a record for the second consecutive year, according to the Giving USA 2016 report, released this week.

The report said the new high in giving was a record in both current and inflation-adjusted dollars.

In 2015, total giving grew by 4.1% in current dollars—4% when adjusted for inflation—over 2014. The revised inflation-adjusted estimate for total giving in 2014 was $359 billion, with current-dollar growth of 7.8%, and an inflation-adjusted increase of 6.1%.

There was more positive news.

“If you look at total giving by two-year time spans, the combined growth for 2014 and 2015 hit double digits, reaching 10.1% when calculated using inflation-adjusted dollars,” Giving USA Foundation chair W. Keith Curtis, president of nonprofit consulting firm The Curtis Group, said in a statement.

“The last two years represent the highest and second-highest totals for giving—and the third and fourth largest percentage increases in giving—in the past 10 years, adjusted for inflation,” Amir Pasic, the Eugene R. Tempel dean of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, which researched and wrote the report.

(Related: Top 20 Richest Colleges of 2015: The Biggest Endowments)

Charitable contributions from individuals, estates, foundations and corporations all went up in 2015, with those from individuals once again leading the way in terms of total dollar amount, at $265 billion—following a six-decade historical pattern, the report said.

Not only did individuals give the most in 2015, increasing their gifts by 3.8% when measured in current dollars, they also were responsible for two-thirds of the year’s overall increase in total giving.

Very large charitable gifts of $100 million or more in 2015 totaled some $3.3 billion, according to the report. Huge contributions affect the numbers, “but Americans’ collective generosity would still be enormous even without those jaw-dropping gifts,” the Lilly school’s associate dean Patrick Rooney said in the statement.

“Philanthropy is quite democratic and always has been—more people give than vote in the U.S.—and $20, $10 and $1 gifts do make a cumulative difference.”

In 2015, the largest year-over-year percentage increase in charitable donations from sources came via grants made by independent, community and operating foundations, the report said, citing data provided by the Foundation Center.

Foundation grant making increased by 6.5% in current dollars.

Charitable bequests went up by 2.1% in current dollars over 2014 to $32 billion, and corporate giving rose by 3.9% to $18.5 billion.

2015 Developments

The report identified several noteworthy developments in giving to charitable organizations.

It found that contributions to educational institutions remained strong, with growth exceeding 5% in 2015, as it also did in four of the five years between 2010 and 2014.

Giving to the religion slice of Giving USA’s recipient pie chart, which measures the percentage of donations made to nine charitable subsectors, has steadily shrunk for decades, according to the report.

Paradoxically, however, religion has never ceded its first-place standing in terms of total donations received. In 2015, the category held firm at 32% of the total received, $119 billion, the same figure estimated for 2014.

Last year, donors gave many valuable gifts of artwork, books and manuscripts, and other types of “appreciated assets” to charitable organizations. The report said a possible explanation was that both global and domestic art markets were at or near peak highs in 2014 and 2015.

Foundations was the only category that experienced a decrease in donations in 2015. Given that foundations tend to receive very large gifts, the report said, it is possible their magnitude was not as great last year compared with 2014, especially since those contributions influence year-over-year changes in giving.

Following two consecutive years of decline, giving to international affairs shot up in 2015. The report said the large increase may be attributable to growth in the number of active international charitable organizations, use of more strategic fundraising methods and greater focus on international issues among foundations.

Moreover, as the slowest-growing type of charitable organization in terms of gifts received for six years, giving to international affairs may have taken longer than others to recover from the recession.

Substantial Increases

Five charitable subsectors saw large increases in 2015:

  • International affairs: 17.5% to $15.8 billion
  • Education: 8.9% to $57.5 billion
  • Arts, culture and humanities: 7% to $17.1 billion
  • Environment/animals: 6.2% to $10.7 billion
  • Public-society benefit: 6% to $27 billion

“Two of those—education and the arts—traditionally include organizations and institutions that wealthy donors are most likely to support,” Una Osili, director of research at the Lilly school, said in the statement.

“In addition, the increase in education giving was fueled by a number of very large gifts to colleges and universities.”

Among the remaining four categories in the report, religion increased by 2.7% over 2014, human services by 4.2% and health by 1.3%. Giving by foundations fell by 3.8%.

According to the report, 2% of 2015’s total charitable giving, $6.6 billion, went to individuals, largely in the form of in-kind donations of medicine contributed via pharmaceutical foundations’ patient assistance programs.

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