The latest edition of the Giving USA annual report found that, with inflation accounted for, giving fell last year, despite a strong economy. The report notes a sharp decline in itemized tax returns.
After a year in which tax policy and a fluctuating stock market added a couple of wrenches into the equation, the latest version of a widely watched barometer into charitable giving has some not great news.
According to Giving USA’s latest annual report, people are giving less—and the 2017 tax reform law might be a big part of it.
The report, coproduced with the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, found that among individuals, bequests, foundations, and corporations, charities received $427.71 billion in gifts in 2018. While technically up 0.7 percent from 2017, an inflation-adjusted number paints a different picture: a 1.7 percent drop in contributions from the year prior.
Rick Dunham, the chair of the Giving USA Foundation, noted that while giving remained strong, the environment had clearly shifted from the record-breaking giving totals seen in 2017.
“The environment for giving in 2018 was far more complex than most years, with shifts in tax policy and the volatility of the stock market,” Dunham said in a news release. “This is particularly true for the wide range of households that comprise individual giving and provide over two-thirds of all giving.”
Perhaps the most stark representation of this point comes in terms of how people are filing their taxes. According to Giving USA, the number of people who itemized their tax deductions in 2018 was around 16 to 20 million—a significant drop from the 45 million people who did so in 2016.
The result of these challenges is that, even with an economy that’s generally been on an upswing and with personal income rising, individual giving fell at a significant rate (1.1 percent in 2018, 3.4 percent adjusted for inflation), with the difference mostly being picked up by foundations and corporations.
Una Osili, the associate dean for research and international programs at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, put the situation to CNBC as such: “It was a complex year for charitable giving.”
Osili noted that gaps in giving were surfacing—while there were fewer donors overall, she said, this was made up for by wealthier individuals and families who were donating more to nonprofits.
“What we see in the data is that the number of total donors is declining,” she told the outlet. “But among those who are giving, the amounts are increasing. So donors are down but dollars are up. It’s a greater concentration.”
Beyond the above details, the report noted that donations to many nonprofit sectors—including religion, education, and public society benefit organizations—was down. Foundations saw a particularly steep decline of 6.9 percent, or 9.1 percent when adjusted for inflation.
But some nonprofit sectors did see growth, including international affairs (up by 9.6 percent, or 7 percent with inflation) and environment/animal organizations (3.6 percent, 1.2 percent with inflation).
“Despite declines in 2018, many subsectors experienced their second-best year for giving ever, when adjusting for inflation,” said Laura MacDonald, the vice chair of the Giving USA Foundation, in the news release, adding that the shifts deserve a deeper context.
“Now, as always, it is vital for organizations to understand the forces impacting their foundation, corporate, and individual donors,” she said.