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America remains the most generous place in the world—but barely

The latest World Giving Index—which looks at donations to charity, time volunteering, and simply helping others—finds that the U.S is slipping in the rankings.

America remains the most generous place in the world—but barely
[Illustration: FC]

The United States has been consistently rated as the most generous (per capita) country over the course of the last decade. But that recognition comes with a pretty large asterisk. In recent years the number of people who report giving money to charity annually has been declining. Overall, 58% of Americans typically reported doing something generous when polled annually over the last 10 years, according to the data from the World Giving Index of global generosity, placing the United States just ahead of Myanmar, New Zealand, Australia, and Ireland, which round out the top five and were all within two percentage points.

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The World Giving Index is based on Gallup surveys and compiled by Charities Aid Foundation, a group that works to find strategic ways to boost giving. All told, it includes representative and consistent responses from roughly 1.3 million people across 128 countries. As CAF reports, these findings were based primarily on one thing: a question about whether, within the last month, those surveyed had done one or more of the following: helped a stranger, donated money, or volunteered time to an organization. For the purposes of measuring generosity, all of those things were weighted equally.

In the United States, roughly 7 in 10 people consistently reported helping others: 6 in 10 gave cash, and 4 in 10 offered time. But other places prioritize differently. In Myanmar, for instance, the average number of people making donations was higher, probably because the prevailing Buddhist culture encourages that. In New Zealand, meanwhile, the proportion of people giving money and helping strangers was more equal.

[Image: courtesy Charities Aid Foundation]

Other countries in the top 10 include Canada, the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. “For me one of the really fascinating things when looking at the 10 years is that those countries who form the top 10 most generous are quite different and that there is no magic bullet as to what makes a country generous,” says Susan Pinkney, the head of research at CAF in an email to Fast Company. “The top 10 is made up of countries from different continents, prevalent religions, cultures, and levels of wealth.”

The rate of Americans making donations appears to have peaked in 2014, with 64% of those surveyed reporting that action. In 2018, the last year analyzed, only 58% of people said they were doing it. As Fast Company has reported, the decline in people giving has been offset by the fact that the fewer people who do give are contributing more. That’s problematic for a couple of reasons: First, it means fewer people may be engaging with their communities. Second, it creates a system where charities may have to pander more to the objectives of the people handing out the big checks.

[Image: courtesy Charities Aid Foundation]

It also may not be sustainable in the long term. America’s citizens, foundations, and corporations combined to give nearly $428 billion in 2018, but that amount was actually down 2% overall from a year earlier, according to a Giving USA report. The bulk of that wealth still comes from individual giving, which was also down just a bit year over year.

The fact that the highest rate of volunteering peaked at only 46% (it was in Sri Lanka) doesn’t bode well for communities around the globe in general. As Robert Grimm, the director of the Do Good Institute at the University of Maryland, previously told Fast Company: “When less residents [within a community] are actually engaged in behavior such as giving and volunteering in particular, there’s greater social isolation and less trust in each other.” That’s not good for anyone’s physical or mental health.

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[Image: courtesy Charities Aid Foundation]

The places with the lowest scores are often dealing with troubling governmental and social upheavals: China, Greece, Yemen, Serbia, and Palestine, where fewer than 20% of all people have either the ability or are empowered enough to perform philanthropic-minded deeds.

The index indicates which countries have been rising fastest in their charitable scores. Pinkney at CAF points out that half of the countries in the top 10 are within Asia, with another three in Africa. Like any valuable commodity, these feel-good values may need to be nurtured and better invested in to stay strong. CAF continues to publish research that suggests how those who want to grow such sentiments and encourage more people and institutional players can get involved: promoting good governance among nonprofits, funding local nonprofits, and engaging meaningfully with people on the ground. “I would say that in the countries where we are generous, we can’t take that generosity for granted, especially given the decreases we have seen in wealthier countries over recent years,” Pinkney says.

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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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