Comparatively little polling has been conducted on big questions at the heart of voluntary giving. So in 2015 The Philanthropy Roundtable commissioned a survey of 1,000 American likely voters over age 18. Results and brief analysis follow.
The graphs show nationwide results. In places where citizens of a certain age or origin or viewpoint gave answers that differ in interesting ways from the overall result, we mention that in the commentary.
The firm Pulse Opinion Research used random selection, oversamples, and a dynamic weighting program to ensure that the respondents represented the overall U.S. population in terms of sex, age, race, political preference, religion, family structure, education, income, and other factors. The margin of sampling error for the full results is plus or minus 3 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence level.
Question 1: When it comes to voluntarily giving money to a charitable cause, are Americans more generous, less generous, or about as generous as people in other developed nations?
A large minority of Americans—45% in total—don’t realize that their country is all by itself at the front of the pack in the practice of making voluntary donations to others. For the actual hard numbers, see the last chart in the section that follows this one, "Statistics on U.S. Generosity." You’ll see that the level of charitable offerings in the U.S. ranges from roughly twice what takes place in lands like Britain and Canada to almost 20 times the rate of Italians and Germans.
Interestingly, younger Americans ages 18-39 (who often think of themselves as more globally aware) are actually far less likely than compatriots 40 and over to appreciate how much their country differs from others on this front.
This slight blind spot may help explain why younger citizens, in some of the sub-detail behind Question 5, are more willing to countenance efforts that push fellow Americans to give more.
Question 2: Would your first choice for solving a social problem in America be to use government or to use philanthropic aid?
Another area where Americans are distinctive is in 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%.
Question 3: Which is more cost-effective in promoting social good—private charities or government?
One thing the public is pretty clear on—charities are much better at stretching a dollar and avoiding waste.
Here, political liberals are even starker outliers. Individuals who use that label to describe themselves think 37% to 34% that government will be more cost-effective. They are the sole exception: Both sexes, all races, all religions, all education and income levels—indeed, every other demographic category we measured—agree that private aid will be more efficient.
Question 4: Is it important that Americans continue to give money and time to charities?
In opinion polling, results this strong are rare. So underline it: Americans think charitable giving is very important to keeping their country healthy and successful.
Question 5: As a personal matter, not as a matter of law, should people be encouraged to contribute a larger percentage of their income to charity?
At the same time, it’s clear that the voluntary part of voluntarism is a crucial part of the sector’s appeal. The public doesn’t even want to be encouraged to increase donations, so you can be dead certain it doesn’t want to be pushed into mandatory do-gooding.
This presents something of a dilemma to charity boosters. Even while the country has gotten much richer over the last century, the fraction of national income donated has held basically constant. While a vastly larger number of actual dollars is handed over, thanks to economic growth, it’s still about the same percentage of our adjusted gross income that we give away now compared to a generation ago. (See Graph 1 in our Statistics section.)
Question 6: Should tax deductions for charitable contributions be eliminated or capped because they cost the government tax revenue, OR should tax deductions for charitable contributions be protected because they encourage people to help others in voluntary and selfless ways?
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 level as captured in our survey question above.
Question 7: Is it fair that the tax deduction for charitable contributions could result in one family paying less tax than another family with the same income, just because the first family gave more to charity?
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.
Question 8: Would capping or eliminating the tax deduction for donations have a negative effect on charities and the people they serve?
Some political figures suggest the charitable tax deduction could be capped or eliminated without damaging the flow of donations to charitable works. The public disagrees.
Question 9: Does the government need to place stricter controls on how charities, donors, and foundations operate, OR does the government need to allow charities, donors, and foundations wide opportunities to find new and better ways of solving social problems?
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.
Question 10: When it comes to addressing the most pressing issues of our day, which social sector do you trust most—entrepreneurial companies, nonprofit charities, or government agencies?
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.
Question 11: Do you agree or disagree with the following? It is in my power to improve the welfare of others, by personally giving or volunteering.
You see here the strong confidence of Americans that individual acts of kindness will make a real difference in the lives of others. The only subset of the population that diverges slightly from this powerful view is high-school dropouts—and even they still say by 51% to 27% that personal good deeds will help the recipient.
Question 12: Thinking about your own personal giving, which charitable cause do you give most to?
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.
Question 13: When you make a charitable contribution, are you more likely to give to local causes, national causes, or international causes?
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.
Question 14: How much does society as a whole benefit when Americans donate money to charity—a large amount, a moderate amount, only a little, or not at all?
Here again we see evidence of the overwhelming confidence of people in the efficacy, honesty, and value of our nation’s charitable giving. Within this powerful trend there are some variations. There is a clear influence by education: The response “society benefits a large amount” rises on a straight line from 30% among high-school dropouts right up to 55% among those with graduate degrees, while the combined “only a little/not at all” response tumbles from 36% among dropouts to just 8% among the highly educated. Democrats are also less enthusiastic, with 38% describing the benefit of charitable donations as “large” and 40% choosing “moderate”—compared to 52% “large” and 31% “moderate” among Republicans.
Question 15: Between two general categories of giving—big gifts by megadonors, or small gifts from millions of everyday citizens—which is more important to America?
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.