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Americans gave a record $410 billion to charity last year

Religion and education nonprofits got the largest checks.

Americans gave a record $410 billion to charity last year
[Source Image: Vanzyst/iStock]

Charitable giving reached an all-time high in 2017, with donor generosity cresting the $400 billion mark for the first time U.S. history. In total, gifts from individuals, bequests, foundations and corporations combined to contribute $410 billion to various causes—that’s up 5% since last year—with funding for nearly every cause sector rising accordingly.

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About 70% of donations still come from individuals. “This can be attributed to increases in the stock market and the strong economy which resulted in more discretionary income,” says Aggie Sweeney, the chair of the public service group Giving USA Foundation, during a conference call to explain these trends. The group shares more in Giving USA 2018, an annual report developed in tandem with the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

Americans tend to give to a limited orbit of causes associated with their political leaning, but the rising charitable tide lifted nearly all boats in 2017. Giving increased in eight of the nine major categories that Giving USA measures. In terms of sheer dollars contributed, religion accounted for the largest share at $127.4 billion. That’s followed by education and human service gifts, which totaled $58.9 billion and $50.1 billion respectively.

[Source Image: Vanzyst/iStock]

From there, each cause garners substantially less than the former, with foundations, health organizations and public-society benefit groups like the United Way and ACLU within the $50 to $25 billion range. Next is arts, culture, and humanities nonprofits, followed by international affairs, and the combination of environmental and animal causes, all of which live, in descending order, in the $25 billion to $10 billion bracket.

By percentage increases, however, that leaderboard changes to put foundations first (at nearly 16%), and then arts, public society, and health organizations. The inclusion of foundations receiving money as opposed to contributing it might seem surprising, but these groups work both ways. The Ford Foundation, for instance, might invest through its endowment in social justice programs, but also receive major gifts from those donors to grow and scale. “Much of this growth can be attributed to mega-gifts or gifts that fall outside of our statistical model by major philanthropists to their own foundations, such as Michael and Susan Dell and Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan,” adds Anna Pruitt, co-managing editor of the Giving USA report, who was also on the conference call.

The larger question is whether this charitable spirit is sustainable, particularly in light of a new Trump administration tax policy that will raise the standard deduction this year. As a result, fewer Americans may be incentivized to make tax-deductible contributions, a shift that–according to early estimates–could cost between $12 and $20 billion in annual donations.

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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