Post-recession changes in giving by high-net-worth donors

The Bank of America just released its fourth biannual report on philanthropic trends among America’s wealthy households. The study, which was led by analysts from the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy, included those with household incomes above $200,000 or net worth greater than $1,000,000.

The results of the survey show that even many households in this economic bracket have been affected by the economic downturn.

Some highlights from the report:

Giving by wealthy households continues to be affected by the economic downturn. The average amount donated to philanthropic causes in 2011 was $52,770 -- a 7% decline from 2009. Importantly, however, if “outliers” -- especially large gifts -- are included in the calculations, then the average amount donated more than doubled between 2009 and 2011. What accounts for this counterintuitive finding? It’s likely that even among well-off households, some experienced a decline in economic fortunes in the downtown -- so even high-net-worth households are on average giving less, but some households remained able and willing to give very large gifts. This Bank of America report finding conforms with the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s 2012 report on America’s 50 greatest philanthropists: the Chronicle report found that, even while median philanthropic giving by the biggest donors has yet to return to pre-recession levels, “outlier” gifts boosted the total average giving between 2010 and 2011 (the Chronicle report included the outlier $4.4 billion bequest from the estate of Margaret Cargill).

 

When asked to name the public policy issues that mattered most to them, education was named by 60% of high-net worth respondents -- in fact, education was the only public policy issue chosen by a majority of survey respondents as among their top three concerns. And, those surveyed reported that the fraction of their giving that went to education increased 43% between 2009 and 2011. This also conforms with the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s report, which found that 19 of America’s 50 most generous philanthropists gave large gifts to colleges.

 

Some donors became much more focused in their philanthropy -- and, for some, that meant ending support to organizations they’d supported in the past. Overall, 81% reported focusing their philanthropy on particular causes or a particular locale. While about the same number of respondents quit supporting one or two organizations in 2007 and 2011 (64% and 60% respectively), there was a dramatic increase in those who reported discounting support for five or more organizations between 2007 and 2011 (13% to 20% respectively). While this is bad news for those organizations that lost support, it’s possible that philanthropists who are more focused in their giving may also be more effective.

 

Those who volunteer time to the organizations they support both gave more frequently and gave higher amounts overall than those who were not volunteers. No surprise here: when philanthropists spend time with an organization and learn first-hand about its needs and impact, they’re more ready to give additional support.

 

Changes to tax law may discourage or encourage philanthropy. The Obama administration threated at several points in Obama’s first term to decrease the value of the charitable deduction for high-income households. Nearly half -- 49% -- of  respondents in the new Bank of America report said that they would decrease their charitable giving in response to such a move (about the same percentage of respondents who reported that they would feel this way in the previous Bank of America reports). At the same time, 37% said that they would increase their plans for bequests if the estate tax were permanently eliminated (also about the same percentage of respondents who reported that they would feel this way in the previous reports). This year the British government introduced just a reduction -- not elimination -- of the estate tax and apparently influenced many Britons' plans to give more generous legacy gifts.

Of course, one doesn’t need to be a person of high net worth to be generous with what one has, but this Bank of America report details how the wealthy are willing to share their wealth.

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