Number of Americans Giving to Charities Declined to 49.6 Percent, Study Shows

The number of American households donating to charity fell to 49.6 percent in 2018, down from 66 percent in 2000, according to a study released Tuesday.

Indiana University's Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, which publishes the study every other year, uses a nationally representative survey that tracks the giving patterns of more than 9,000 U.S. households.

The study shows that 66 percent of U.S. households donated to a charitable organization in 2000, the study's first year, but by 2018 that number had dropped to 49.6 percent. The study measures donations to charitable organizations and does not track donations through other means.

Younger audiences tend to donate to informal crowdfunding campaigns rather than an established organization. The study also doesn't measure donations made through goods or services.

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Charitable Giving stock image
Only 42 percent of American households donate to a charitable organization, down from 66 percent in 2000, when the study was started. Getty Images

The findings confirm a trend worrying experts: Donations to charitable causes are reaching record highs, but the giving is done by a smaller and smaller slice of the population.

Experts say many factors are contributing to the decline. The percentage of Americans who give to religious causes has decreased in tandem with attendance at worship services as the number of Americans not affiliated with any religion grows. Separately, the share of Americans who give to secular causes began to drop following the economic turbulence of the Great Recession, but it hasn't bounced back.

Una Osili, the associate dean for research and international programs at the Lilly School, suggests this is, in part, because the Great Recession made it difficult for some younger Americans to establish a habit of giving. The study found only about a third of households headed by someone under the age of 40 gave to charity in 2018, a trend Osili believes will be a challenge for charities.

"What are the factors that will bring them into giving? Especially if they are not attending services, and not participating in networks that will lead to giving," she said.

The study says declining levels of trust among Americans for institutions and each other may also contribute to the move away from charitable giving. That mistrust is especially pronounced among millennials, which could cause another layer of challenges for charitable organizations.

The data shows a majority of households headed by a person who had a college or a graduate degree, and was married or widowed gave to charity. Wealth was also a factor.

Nearly 8 out of 10 households with more than $200,000 of wealth gave to charity in 2018, the study said. By contrast, less than 4 in 10 households with wealth less than $50,000 made donations.

"The overall pie [in giving] is slowly moving towards the ultra wealthy," said John List, an economics professor at the University of Chicago who studies giving, adding that this shift can be dangerous. "Rich people give to causes that rich people want to give to," he said. "You have a very different supply of goods and services from the charitable community when the rich people give versus when the middle-class or lower-class gives."

Critics have long argued that large charitable donations by wealthy philanthropists are only possible in an era of rising income inequality, a point philanthropist MacKenzie Scott cited during her latest announcement of donations.

Phil Buchanan, the president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy and author of Giving Done Right: Effective Philanthropy and Making Every Dollar Count, believes the declining giving participation rate also shows charities are failing to communicate their message effectively.

American society tends to deify businesses and and athletes, he said. "And we can do a better job of elevating the work and heroism of nonprofits in communities all across the country."

Woman prays alone in church
For the first time in nearly two decades, only half of U.S. households donated to a charity, according to a study released Tuesday, July 27, 2021. Fran DiBiasio sits alone in Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church as Rev. Peter Gower celebrates Mass from the front door as worshippers listen over the radio from their cars in the parking lot, Sunday, March 29, 2020, in Johnston, R.I. David Goldman, File/AP Photo