The Pandemic Propelled U.S. Giving to the Highest Level in 2020

The Pandemic Propelled U.S. Giving to the Highest Level in 2020

Jun 29, 2021 Patrice Onwuka

The coronavirus pandemic spurred a tremendous year of giving according to new giving data. In total, Americans gave $471.44 billion away to charity. Charitable giving grew 5.1% in 2020 (or 3.8% when adjusted for inflation), marking it the highest year of charitable giving on record. During one of the toughest years in recent memory, the numbers show Americans responded to the unprecedented needs caused by the public health and economic crises. Giving USA’s annual report on charitable giving tracked combined national giving in 2020. Here are some highlights from the recent report:

  • Giving by individuals rose by a modest 2.2% (or 1% when adjusted for inflation) totaling an estimated $324.10 billion and representing 69% of all giving.
  • Giving by foundations increased by a substantial 17% (or 15.6% when adjusted for inflation) to an estimated $88.55 billion and representing 19% of all giving. This includes grants made by independent, community and operating foundations.
  • Giving by bequest increased by a significant 10.3% (or 9% when adjusted for inflation) to $41.91 billion and representing 9% of all donations.
  • Giving by corporations declined by 6.1% (or 7.3% when adjusted for inflation) to an estimated $16.88 billion, which is 4% of all donations.
  • Giving to religion remained steady with an estimated $131.08 billion in contributions. Even though many faith groups were not able to gather during much of 2020, religious organizations remain the top destination for donations. It comprised 28% of all contributions.
  • Giving to education rose 9% (or 7.7% when adjusted for inflation) to $71.34 billion, the second highest category of giving comprising 15% of all contributions.
  • Giving to human services rose 9.7% (or 8.4% when adjusted for inflation) to $65.14 billion, the third highest category comprising 14% of total gifts.
  • Giving to grantmaking foundations also remained steady with approximately $58.17 billion contributions, the fourth highest category of giving comprising 12% of total gifts.
  • Giving to public-society benefit organizations, international affairs and environmental/animal organizations increased, while donations to health and arts, culture and humanities all fell.

Examining trends among sources and recipients of 2020 giving reveals a few insights.

The generosity of individuals early in the pandemic, the recovery of the stock market in the second half of the year and rising incomes as unemployment began to recede all likely helped push individual giving higher in 2020.

Despite the publicity many companies garnered for making big gifts to social justice causes including Black Lives Matter groups or pandemic relief efforts, corporate giving actually decreased overall by more than 6%. We can only speculate that this was due to the pandemic disrupting corporate earnings.

By contrast, foundations accelerated their giving, contributing more dollars to charity than ever before. Anecdotally, we know that foundations stepped up giving at the start of the pandemic. We have reported on the changes that foundations implemented to boost their giving, increase the flexibility of gifts and reduce the bureaucratic processes that can slow down giving. In addition, stock market gains later in the year provided them more resources to give during the crucial end-of-year timeframe.

The impact of the pandemic, economic turmoil, and efforts to support racial justice were also reflected in the shifts in giving among the broad categories of recipients. Human services and public-society benefit organizations both experienced significant influxes of cash as Americans gave to address the immediate needs of food and shelter for those who lost employment due to mandated shutdowns. The prolonged closures meant that workers in industries such as dining, entertainment and travel could not find employment for months on end.

Communities supported relief funds across the country—oftentimes sparked by a gift from a local donor—--almost immediately after the coronavirus was declared a pandemic. These numbers reflect those local efforts in addition to giving to national and international causes. Giving USA experts also point to increased giving to social justice organizations.

Absent from Giving USA’s data is information on specific giving vehicles such as donor-advised funds. However, other recent data point to significant increases in DAF payouts last year as well.

For more information, please see: “Giving USA 2021: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2020,” a publication of Giving USA Foundation, 2021, researched and written by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Available online at www.givingusa.org.