Saturday, April 21, 2007

Where are the donations going?

It's commonplace in dot-org land to hear professionals quote as unquestioned fact things about charitable giving in this country that are either completely wrong, or wildly outdated. This seems like one more example of the immaturity of this sector -- do lifers in other lines of enterprise walk around believing basic objective facts about their sectors which are dead wrong? Doesn't seem likely.

Anyway, inspired by one such comment I recently pulled out the authoritative annual reports by Giving USA on charitable donations in the United States. The subject in mind was where the current ongoing boom in charitable giving is going (that is, to which causes or types of organizations?). I wanted to look at the last 20 years or so which is the real boom period, and wanted to see the overall trends rather than the single-year blips which always end up being the dumb newspaper headlines. So I plotted the annual totals from the years 1985, 1990, 1995, 2000 and 2005 (2006 data is not yet published), as percentages of change.

The overall context is that after adjusting for inflation, charitable contributions in the U.S. for 2005 totaled about 2.5 times as many dollars as in 1985. So total amounts given to every type of non-profit have risen, a lot. Individuals remain by far the major source though slowly declining as a fraction (from being more than 80 percent of the total in 1985 to around 75 percent of it now); the shares contributed by corporations and by foundations are somewhat higher now than 20 years ago.

Giving USA breaks all contributions down into several useful categories by organizational mission. Easily the biggest loser of this particular market share has been religious non-profits: from 53 percent of all donations in 1985 they dropped to 34 percent in 2000, ticking back up to 36 percent in 2005. (Or put another way: the share of all contributions that goes to religious groups has fallen by about one-third over the past 20 years.)

Three other major types of non-profits saw their shares of all giving decline a bit between 1985 and 2005: health care (from 11 percent to 9 percent), human services (from 11 percent to just under 9 percent), and arts/culture (from 7 percent to 5 percent).

So who have been the biggest relative gainers? (Keeping in mind that all types of non-profit have been gaining in absolute terms because the total contributions have risen so much across the board.) Education-focused non-profits have seen their market share rise from 11 percent in 1985 to almost 15 percent in 2005, and giving to foundations rose from under 7 percent then to more than 8 percent now (and the 2006 figures will likely boost this one even more).

What Giving USA calls "public/society benefit" non-profits (meaning groups which collect donations and pass them on such as the United Way) went from 3 percent of all 1985 donations to more than 5 percent in 2005. Other gainers have been by categories which in 1985 weren't even big enough to be counted by Giving USA: environment/animals (3.4 percent of all 2005 giving) and international affairs (2.5 percent). And there are more new types of non-profit entering the picture steadily: the "other" category received 6 percent of all 2005 contributions.

So the overall picture is that charitable giving while rising has also been spreading out, largely at the expense of religious groups.


Stephen Drone said...

Has the real money value of that money gone to religious non profits stayed about the same - i.e. they've simply missed out on growth in giving?

Paul Botts said...

No, the scale of the overall rising tide is too huge for that. Religious nonprofits (which includes actual congregations) received about a third more in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2005 than in 1985. That's easily the smallest percentage increase among any of the major categories of nonprofits, hence the sharp reduction in charitable-contributions market share.

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