When America sneezes, we may have already had the jab

The newly released figures on charitable giving in the USA during 2008 make very interesting reading. The full press release from Giving USA is available here

Despite the onset of a well-heralded recession, giving only slipped from $314 billion to $307 billion, and the decline is dragged down by larger decreases in corporate and legacy giving – individuals only slipped by 2.7%.

I have long been arguing that there is no reason to assume that philanthropy will be dramatically affected by the economic crisis. Charitable giving is a very complex and personal decision that is not driven solely by how much spare money someone has.

On the whole, people don’t think: “I’ve got money so I can give” or “I’ve got less money so I can’t give”.  If the main reason that people made donations was because they could afford to, then every rich person would be a philanthropist, and every fundraiser who met a rich person would walk away with a big cheque. And if there were a direct, straightforward link between having money and making donations then people on low incomes would not be so generous, yet we know that the poorest 10% actually give away more as a percentage of their income than do the richest 10% 

So, giving is not just a function of our capacity to give. The fundraisers know it and the research shows it. What a few decades of research into philanthropy shows is that people give: 

• because they think the cause is important and their money can make a difference.
• because they feel good about supporting that cause or charity.
• because they care about others and the wider world.
• because they’ve been brought up to believe they have a duty to give something back.
• because they want to be part of a charity that they admire.
• because their family and friends support that charity, so they want to as well.
• because their religion encourages them to give away some of their wealth.
• because they enjoy attending the fundraising events and meeting new and interesting people.
• because they couldn’t live with themselves if they didn’t.
• because in so many different ways – and in different proportions depending on each individual donor – supporting charity enhances their life. 

So I’m relieved to see that the Giving USA figures do not show a terrible slump in donations, as many people predicted. And given that UK giving has consistently been less than half of that found in the US (usually below 1% of GDP versus over 2% in the US)  let’s hope any decline we have is similarly halved. In fact, given the low starting point for our giving, let’s not assume it has to decline at all.

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