Giving tops $300 billion, despite economy

Americans donated $306billion to charities in 2007, as U.S. philanthropic giving rose to a record level despite a downturn in the national economy, a survey to be released today has found.

Charitable giving increased 1percent last year, when inflation is taken into account, and surpassed $300 billion for the first time, according to the Giving USA survey.

But experts said that the growth may be short-lived, as many charities reported concerns that rising gas prices and turmoil in the housing and credit markets could hamper their fundraising this year.

In 2007, most of the donations, about $229 billion, came from individuals. But after years of steady growth, that figure remained stagnant last year, a sign that the softening economy may be pinching charitable contributions. Giving by corporations totaled $15.9 billion, an inflation-adjusted decline of 1 percent from the year before.

Meanwhile, giving from private foundations increased 7percent and through personal bequests 4 percent, adjusted for inflation.

Del Martin, chairwoman of the Giving USA Foundation, which compiles the annual report, said the modest growth encouraged her. But she said many charities surveyed were worried about this year.

“Those nonprofits that have the most tenuous relationships with donors are the ones that have the greater concerns,” she said.

A promising sign for charities is the steady growth in giving by private foundations. Buoyed by gains in stock market investments and a record $37 billion in new gifts, the combined assets of U.S. foundations rose from $550 billion in 2006 to $614 billion in 2007, according to a recent survey by the Foundation Center.

Although much of that money remains locked in endowments year after year, foundations are spending a larger share of their assets than was true a decade ago, the survey found. More than half of foundations surveyed said they planned to increase their giving in 2008.

“What you are seeing is the value of sustained endowments that increase in good times and therefore are equipped and able to respond to society's needs in bad times,” said Steve Gunderson, of the Council on Foundations.

In overall U.S. charitable giving, religious congregations received the biggest windfall from donors, the Giving USA study found. Religious groups collected $102 billon, or one-third of all gifts, followed by nonprofit educational organizations, which collectively raised $43 billion.

But the share of overall donations going to religious groups has decreased steadily over time. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, religious congregations received nearly half of all gifts, according to Giving USA's historical data.

Martin attributes this to increased competition among nonprofits for donations.

In 2007, international aid agencies, environmental groups and human service charities saw the largest increases. Gifts to international groups, which were so small 20 years ago that the category was nonexistent, have grown steadily, increasing by 13 percent last year to $13 billion.

“That number is indicative of what I say often: In a global economy, you have global philanthropy,” Gunderson said.