In 2015, The Philanthropy Roundtable surveyed 1,000 American likely voters age 18 or older on their views of philanthropy. Public Opinion Research used random selection, oversamples, and a dynamic weighting program to ensure that the respondents were nationally representative. Full results are presented in The Almanac of American Philanthropy.
Americans are distinctive in our attitudes toward fixing social problems. Our strong preference is to pull the lever of private aid wherever possible, instead of relying on government.
This is partly just a response to what we see around us: In crucial areas like medical care, disaster relief, college education, family life, addiction treatment, sharing the arts, expanding home ownership, and so forth, the most effective actors are often charitable and voluntary groups, not state agencies.
Predictably, the biggest split on this question is by political viewpoint. Overall, men and women alike prefer private aid as their first choice, as do people of all ages and religions. But while Republicans and Independents prefer philanthropy over government by more than 2:1, Democrats run against the trend by picking government over philanthropy by 51% to 31%.
Charities enjoy an extraordinary public trust. People have more confidence in their ability to deliver on tough assignments than competing organizations.
It’s intriguing to see that there is almost no partisan or ideological split on this question—Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, give nonprofit charities almost the same vote of endorsement. It’s between the other two entities where there is a huge political gulf.
The preferences among Republicans: 42% for entrepreneurial companies, 43% for nonprofit charities, 4% for government agencies. Among Democrats: 13% for entrepreneurial companies, 46% for nonprofit charities, 28% for government agencies.
Our national sample believes that even more than the big checks from moguls it is the flurries of $20 and $100 bills that make U.S. giving distinctive and powerful. Only among the young and high-school dropouts are there noticeably more votes for the big gifts—and even within those two groups it is fewer than one out of every five persons who name megadonors as more important.
Voters aren’t wanting more regulation of charity. Not even self-described liberals (40% “control ‘em” vs. 43% “leave ‘em alone”) or Democrats (40% to 48%) tip in favor of more policing and direction.
Americans consider it entirely reasonable and indeed desirable that when someone gives money to charity rather than consuming it or saving it for himself, he should be allowed to deduct that from his income. This is overwhelmingly supported by every demographic slice in our polling sample.
Our examination of historical polling further shows that this sentiment has been firmly lodged in the national bosom for decades, at about the same high level as captured in our survey question above.
More evidence that Americans have no objection to tax deductions for charity, even when it results in unequal payments to the government. Support for the charitable deduction has actually strengthened a bit compared to 2003, when a similar question was asked in a national poll.
In descending order, you can see here how people prioritize charitable causes when it comes time to share their own dollars. Religious charities are, and always have been, the ones Americans are most willing to contribute to. In addition to serving spiritual needs, of course, religious charities are often leaders in other fields listed above. Many of the best medical and overseas charities, for instance, are religious. The Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity are top anti-poverty charities; Catholic schools bring donor dollars to more poor children than any other educational charity. Much of today’s aid for the homeless is a product of churches. And so forth.
U.S. givers send lots of money overseas, but their first impulses are to think locally and act locally. This is true of all of the country’s demographic groups—though compared to others, evangelical Christians and younger people are more likely to give internationally, and liberals are significantly more likely to give at the national level.
Click here to read Part IV, "Common Criticisms of Philanthropy"