Feb 2, 2021 - Economy & Business

Exclusive: U.S. charitable contributions soared during pandemic

Illustration of Benjamin Franklin and hearts wrapping paper with large bow
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Americans gave generously to charity in 2019 and even more generously in the first half of 2020, according to data from the National Philanthropic Trust (NPT) shared exclusively with Axios.

Why it matters: Data on giving from donor-advised funds, or DAFs, shows a 15.4% increase in total charitable donations in fiscal 2019, to $27.4 billion. In the first half of 2020, the pace of giving picked up further, with giving rising by 30% compared to a year previously.

The bad news: The amount of money sitting in donor-advised funds rather than being put to use at real-world charities continues to increase, rising by 16.2% in 2019 to reach $142 billion. Tax-deductible contributions to these financial vehicles exceeded payouts to charity by more than $11 billion.

  • Real payouts were certainly smaller than $27.4 billion, since that figure includes transfers of money from one DAF to another — a surprisingly common occurrence.

The good news: Americans seem to have risen to the occasion when the pandemic hit in 2020, with an NPT survey showing the number of grants awarded in the first six months of the year rising by a whopping 37.4%.

  • The human services subsector, which includes food distribution groups and homeless shelters, saw the value of grants rise by 78.1% on a year-on-year basis, but almost all subsectors saw increases.
  • "Every grant is a Covid grant," NPT president Eileen Heisman tells Axios. "You’re trying to figure out how to keep the nonprofit world afloat."

By the numbers: In response to criticism that the NPT was not being fully transparent on its payout rate, Heisman decided to recalculate it according to the preferred formula of critics. By that formula, the payout rate was 16.2% in 2019, which means that DAFs paid out in grants about 16.2% of the maximum they could have granted if they'd run themselves entirely down to zero.

  • In 2020, for instance, Square CEO Jack Dorsey pledged to give $1 billion to COVID-19 charities. His DAFs disbursed $330 million, and ended the year with assets of $688 million, for a payout rate by this formula of 32.4%.
  • Not all of the assets in Dorsey's #startsmall fund are in DAFs, however. If they had been, the payout rate would have fallen to 8.8% — still higher than most private foundations.

The bottom line: The coronavirus pandemic constitutes exactly the kind of rainy day that should prompt philanthropists to finally give away the money they've been saving up.

  • Donations certainly rose last year, but it seems unlikely that charitable grants will have been large enough to bring total DAF assets down to below their 2019 level.
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