Report: Charitable giving in U.S. rose in 2011, as economy recovered

Posted: June 20, 2012

Every time Mary Nolan goes to Mass in Mount Airy, she drops $20 or $25 in the collection plate. But, disgusted with child-abuse scandals and school and parish closings, she has cut back on her annual gifts to Catholic organizations in favor of other groups.

"The church's tremendous generosity overwhelms everything, but I'm still frustrated," said Nolan, a preschool teacher and mother of six, all educated in Catholic schools. "You have to wonder where the money is going. So many lawsuits. You don't see them selling chalices and paintings to pay for them."

Not that Nolan represents an entire nation of donors, but for the second year in a row, religious giving in the United States is down, even as overall giving has picked up along with the economy, according to a report to be released Wednesday at the Union League in Philadelphia and across the nation by Giving USA, a Chicago nonprofit that tracks donations.

Total charitable giving rose 4 percent in 2011 to $298.42 billion, while giving to religious causes declined 1.7 percent to $95.88 billion. Giving by individuals increased 3.9 percent to $217.8 billion, while corporate giving was essentially flat, declining 0.1 percent to $14.55 billion.

Last year's total giving was the second-best since the report began in 1971. Giving peaked in 2007, just before the start of the recession, at $309.8 billion.

Giving USA's findings show increases in education, international affairs, health, human services, and arts and cultural giving.

Presenting the findings Wednesday to philanthropists, grantmakers, and fund-raisers will be Patrick Rooney, executive director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University in Indianapolis, which conducted the study.

In 2011, donations rose for the second year in a row. Charitable giving has expanded steadily since 1971, when the study began. But there were recession-related one-year downturns in 1987 and 2002. This recession was worse, with two successive years of declines, to $290.9 billion in 2008 and then to the recent low of $278.7 billion (measured in current dollars) in 2009, just as the recession was "officially" coming to an end, the report says.

"People give for a lot of reasons," Rooney said in an interview Monday. "Their motivations aren't affected by the economy, but the amount they give seems to change in fairly tight relation to it."

Increases in personal spending and upward movement in the Standard and Poor's 500 both predict more generous donations, he said.

"The recovery has been slow and modest, but at the same time, we are making progress," Rooney said. "Is the glass half-empty or half-full? It's both. It's half-full in that it grew, but at the same time, it's half-empty because it's growing at less than half the rate we typically see coming out of recession."

But that mirrors the economic recovery itself, which also has been slower than normal.

Jane Hunt sees the half-empty, half-full scenario in her life, and it has affected her giving.

When Hunt, of Collingswood, became unemployed in March 2010, she cut her charitable giving in half. She still hasn't ramped it back up again, though she landed a job as a rehabilitation counselor in July 2011.

"I have to have a greater level of comfort with the economy," Hunt said, but she is beginning to feel more encouraged, and so may begin to donate more to her favorite causes, breast-cancer research and women's economic issues.

Among key examples of cultural philanthropy in this region are the millions given to support the newly opened Barnes Foundation museum.

And Philadelphia's institutions of higher education notched three huge gifts last year: $225 million donated to the University of Pennsylvania's medical school by Raymond G. and Ruth Perelman; $15 million to Drexel University by real estate magnate Philip Lindy; and $5 million to Philadelphia University from an anonymous donor.

Even though religious giving has declined, it still attracts one in three donor dollars, or 32 percent, the largest share of charitable contributions.

Church scandals attract the biggest headlines, but they aren't the biggest reason religious giving has declined, said Robert Evans, a Giving USA board member and managing director of Willow Grove-based EHL Consulting Group, which specializes in religious fund-raising.

"Institutions doing bad things discourage giving," he said. "Donors at all levels feel they have to send a message to the powers-that-be that they don't like bad behavior, and they do it with their checkbooks."

But more problematic is the decline in attendance at churches, synagogues and other religious institutions: Attendance correlates with giving, Evans said.

Even though religious organizations "ask" more often, they are not as sophisticated as other fund-raisers, he said.

"In almost every seminary, there is no attention paid to fund-raising. But in other sectors in the nonprofit world, there is." Educational institutions like the University of Pennsylvania have large, sophisticated professional fund-raising staffs who know how to prospect for donors.

Eileen Heisman, who heads the National Philanthropic Trust, a Jenkintown foundation with $1.3 billion in assets, said the rise of global media has contributed to the rise in international giving.

"There's a sense of urgency in seeing disasters around the world, but it's put an onus on American charities," Heisman said. "Most American charities don't get a chance to make their cases on TV."

Contact Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769, jvonbergen@phillynews.com or @JaneVonBergen on Twitter. Read her Jobbing blog at www.philly.com/jobbing

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