Almanac: Who Gives Most to Charity

Almanac: Who Gives Most to Charity

Article posted in General on 8 February 2018| comments
audience: National Publication | last updated: 9 February 2018


This section of the Almanac explores "who" gives in America. The profile of the American giver will surprise you. Or maybe not.

From Alaskan bush villages to center-city Manhattan, local-scale philanthropy unfolds every day in nearly all American communities. At first glance this modest, unsplashy, omnipresent giving may seem mundane. Yet such microphilanthropy leaves deep imprints in almost every corner of American life, due to its sheer density and the intimate ways in which it is delivered.

The fireworks show that delighted your town this week. The children’s hospital where the burned girl from down the street was saved. The ­Rotary scholarship that allowed you to become dear friends with a visiting ­Indonesian graduate student. The church-organized handyman service that keeps your elderly mother in her home. The park that adds so much to your family life. These gifts, products of modest offerings from local foundations or groups of community donors, accumulate in powerful ways to make our daily existences safer, sweeter, more interesting.

It is easy to think of philanthropy as something done by the very wealthy, or big foundations, or prosperous companies. Actually, of the $358 billion that Americans gave to charity in 2014, only 14 percent came from foundation grants, and just 5 percent from corporations. The rest—81 percent—came from individuals.

And among individual givers in the U.S., while the wealthy do their part (as you’ll see later in this essay), the vast predominance of offerings come from average citizens of moderate income. Between 70 and 90 percent of all U.S. households donate to charity in a given year, and the typical household’s annual gifts add up to between two and three thousand dollars.

This is different from the patterns in any other country. Per capita, ­Americans voluntarily donate about seven times as much as continental ­Europeans. Even our cousins the Canadians give to charity at substantially lower rates, and at half the total volume of an American household.

There are many reasons for this American distinction. Foremost is the fact that ours is the most religious nation in the industrial world. Religion motivates giving more than any other factor. A second explanation is our deep-rooted tradition of mutual aid, which has impressed observers like Tocqueville since our founding days. Third is the potent entrepreneurial impulse in the U.S., which generates overflowing wealth that can be shared, while simultaneously encouraging a “bootstrap” ethic that says we should help our neighbors pull themselves up (partly because, in our freewheeling economy, we could be the ones who need help next time).

But what lies beneath our high national average? Do subgroups of the U.S. population vary in their giving, and if so, how much? What exactly do we know about who gives in America, and what motivates them?

Dissecting who is generous and who is not can be controversial. And not all of the research agrees. So we have methodically waded through heaps of studies and drawn out for you the clearest findings. You’re about to learn what today’s best social science has to say about the geography, demography, and economics of generosity in America. Some of it will surprise you. 

Click here to learn more.

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