Philanthropy: A 2020 Success Story
July 20, 2021 | Emily Burden Rees
Philanthropy in a pandemic, as it turns out, is as good as it gets. Giving USA recently released its annual report on the nation’s charitable giving in 2020, with the total exceeding $471 billion. What follows is a breakdown of the most important numbers.
$471 billion. When Americans gave a record-breaking $471 billion, it was clear that a large portion was in response to pandemic-related needs. Given the past year’s economic uncertainty, this level of giving may seem surprising. However, according to Giving USA, giving trends tend to follow the stock market, which finished strong at the end of 2020. The resulting influx to nonprofits spurred debate on how best to allocate these charitable resources.
47%. The Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, which partners with Giving USA, reported that nearly half—47%—of affluent Americans gave to pandemic-related causes in 2020. “In times of crisis, Americans have historically responded quickly and generously to assist others and address urgent needs,” said Una Osili, Ph.D, Efroymson Chair in the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
69%. Individuals were the main source of funds, followed by foundations at 19%, bequests at 9%, and corporations at 4%. Although Giving USA’s “individual” category includes mega-donors like MacKenzie Scott, it also includes individuals who made small-dollar gifts to causes they care about. In 2020, we saw firsthand the world-changing effect of collective, tiny acts—whether that meant wearing a mask or giving $5. What we do as individuals changes the world when compounded by millions.
16%. Donations in Giving USA’s “public-society benefit” category increased by 16%, from $37.16 billion in 2019 to $48 billion in 2020. This category includes civil rights and human-services groups like homeless shelters and veteran support. The enduring challenges of impoverished Americans and pandemic frustrations shined a spotlight on nonprofits' critical role in society.
$71.3 billion. Philanthropists gave $71.3 billion to K-12 and higher education last year. Education held steady as the second most popular source of giving after religious causes (the number one category since 1956). Higher education gifts took a different shape in 2020 than in years past. Many colleges established or bolstered student emergency funds. Although this helped in the short-term to address pandemic-related needs, systemic cost problems persist in higher education, and more work must be done to tackle exorbitant tuition prices and rein in administrative spending. In 2020, higher education donors also looked beyond the “usual suspects,” with many community colleges and historically black colleges and universities receiving their largest gifts last year. Hopefully, philanthropists’ extraordinary giving and the compassionate responses of many universities mark a renewed commitment to helping students.
Four hundred and seventy-one billion dollars is a remarkable testament to the American community spirit. What the Giving USA survey does not capture, however, are the myriad other ways Americans gave back over the past year through small acts of kindness—shopping for the elderly, empathizing with black neighbors, and calling those who were isolated. Time and again we see that when people believe their gift will have a real, meaningful impact and are moved by a cause, they give—in 471 billion ways.