Checking the Pulse of our "Culture of Giving"

More people donate every year than vote for president.”


That was just one of the pithy observations Patrick M. Rooney, Ph.D, offered to the roomful of nonprofit executives as Nonprofit Connect hosted its annual presentation of Giving USA: The Annual Report on Philanthropy. Published since 1956, this is the longest running annual report on U.S. charitable giving. 

But, is this comparison more a positive indicator of our philanthropic commitment or a negative reflection of our political connection?

Overall, the tone of the presentation was upbeat as Dr. Rooney reported that total giving increased 2.7% from 2015 to 2016. With this, the third consecutive year of growth, total giving has finally regained virtually all of the 15% drop experienced during the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

The increase was spread across giving from Individuals (72% of total), Foundations (15%) and Corporations (5%), while giving through Bequests (8% of total) experienced a decline of 9%.  Dr. Rooney was quick to point out that this category, often driven by one or two of the wealthiest estates, is typically more volatile than the other three.

All nine subsectors saw an increase in revenue. While Religion continues to be the largest of category, accounting for 32% of all giving, it saw the slowest rate of growth (3%). This trend is contributing to an overall decline in share of giving; the sector represented 33% of total revenue just 10 years ago and 58% in 1985. 

The three fastest growing subsectors are:
• Environment/Animals - up 7.2%
• Arts/Humanities - up 6.4%
• Health - up 5.7%

For the skeptics among us, there's ample room for concern about the overall health of our “culture of giving.”

  • While total giving is up slightly, it still remains at about 2.1% of Gross Domestic Product. This has ranged from 1.7% to 2.2% over the past 50 years, but has not been able to move beyond.
  • The total number of 501(c)3 organizations continues to grow and has also now reached pre-recession levels. 
  • Both the number of volunteers and volunteer hours are up, but not enough to have kept pace with overall population growth.
  • While overall corporate giving was up, much of the increase was from increased marketing spending (sponsorships, etc.) rather than “pure” philanthropy.

So, what can we do to keep our culture fit?

I think objective assessments like this are critically important and I applaud Nonprofit Connect for their ongoing commitment to providing such perspectives. I’m also grateful for Jeffry Byrne’s connection, which allows Kansas City to be one of the first markets in which the study is unveiled.   

But we obviously have to do more than simply watch the numbers. Engagement. Encouragement. Empowerment. What role do you play?