How Much Do Americans Give? An Illustration

Humans have a hard time understanding statistics and large numbers. So illustrations can often significantly help us understand numbers by putting them in context. Today, USA Today ran the charts below which do an excellent job of helping the viewer understand philanthropic giving.


(See full size image here)

The charts make clear a couple of interesting takeaways.

  • Charitable giving in 2009 sat right at an all time high. While it is down slightly on an inflation adjusted basis, nonprofits think about year over year giving in non-inflation adjusted terms. Inflation adjustments make a ton of sense when viewed over the long term, but on a year over year basis they are less important.
  • Donations from individuals make up the lion share of philanthropy. Note that the chart breaks out “bequests” separately from individuals. But bequests are just donations from individuals that are made at the time of death. Taken together, individual giving accounts for 83% of charitable giving. Foundations account for just 13% (and keep in mind that foundations without staff are essentially just an account through which individuals give, as are donations made from donor advised funds, which are categorized as foundations).
  • Corporate giving appears to be down quite sharply from its high in 2005. However, when viewed as a trend line since 1999, we see that corporate giving is growing at a sustained rate and the trend line growth rate appears to be increasing.
  • Many people bemoan the fact that donations are not focused on human service charities. But of the major categories of charity type, when you exclude religious giving human services rates second only to education. In addition, the massive allocation to religious organizations (a third of the total) masks the fact that a significant portion of religious organizations provide human services. In fact, faith based organizations are often the ones most willing to provide services to people at the very bottom of society. Many of the most highly thought of secular nonprofits focus on providing services to “high potential” beneficiaries, such as low income individuals who have no drug/alcohol abuse problems, no history of domestic abuse, etc.

Clearly, I look at these charts with an optimistic eye. I believe that we are in the middle of a long term transformation of the philanthropic sector. The bumps on the way don’t concern me as much as the trajectory of the long term shift. That’s why I wrote a column titled The Second Great Wave of Philanthropy Will Roll On, in spring of 2009 at the very bottom of the financial crisis.

But of course there are other ways to look at this data. What do you see when you look at the charts? I’m especially interested in any negative takes that readers have.


  1. Is there any way you could load a higher res/bigger image that can be clicked on to enlarge?