Americans donated an estimated $358.8 billion to charities last year, according to the annual Giving USA report, the highest total ever in the 60-year history of the report.
The report, which was released last week, came as welcome news in the charitable community, which saw donations plunge in the aftermath of the recession. But the recovery actually began a few years ago, particularly among wealthy donors, according to Eileen Heisman, CEO of the National Philanthropic Trust, one of the largest grant-making institutions in the U.S.
“I think that for the ultra-high net worth, the giving recovered a couple of years ago,” she said. “I think for the average American and in general, the sector didn’t recover completely until 2014. But the data that came out in June said charitable giving was at its pre-recession levels, which is just great. What it didn’t say is that we missed those years post-recession. Had we kept on pace, it would have been growing at a pretty good rate. So we slipped, but we’re now at a pre-recession level. We can look forward again and not worry about whether we are going to recover or not.”
She believes the recovery in charitable giving began to take root in 2012 with the worry about the so-called “fiscal cliff,” as the Bush-era tax cuts came to an end.
“It looked like there were going to be tax law changes,” said Heisman. “There was a big spike in charitable giving from the high net worth, because they thought that the deductibility was going to change, and it turned out it didn’t. To me, that was the beginning. The real catch-up was at the end of ’12 and end of ’13, and then the end of ’14 marked when we finally got to pre-recession levels.”
One of the factors helping charitable giving last year was the steady decline in the unemployment rate as the economy improved.
“Usually giving lags about a year or so,” said Heisman. “I think people need to feel wealthy for a longer period of time than just one year, so it didn’t surprise me that it took a little while. If they think it’s going to be a single-year recovery, they’re probably going to hold onto it another year to make sure it’s really true. I think that it took so long because people’s confidence was restored to the point where they realized, OK, I’m not going to really need this.’ I think everybody in the sector was relieved to see that we hit that and now we can look forward to some more significant growth.”
Heisman expects to see more giving coming in the future from the Millennial generation. “I think the Millennials are pretty good citizens in general and they’re going to be involved in the charitable sector, giving more money when they start earning money,” she said. “They’re big at volunteering and at contributing their energy in social media to talk about causes. That’s all going to translate into giving when they start to earn income that they don’t need to live. A lot of them are still at that stage in their life where they are living pretty close to the edge, paying back student loans. But when the Millennials hit their maturity and start having bigger jobs in which they have money that they don’t need to live, I think they’ll be very generous donors. After all, they were raised by us Baby Boomers!”