Charitable Donations Fell in 2008, Report Finds

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Charitable giving in the United States fell by 2 percent last year, the largest year-over-year drop and only the second decline since the Giving USA Foundation began tracking American philanthropy 53 years ago, according to a report being released today.

Individual donations dropped by about 2.7 percent from 2007 to last year, corporate giving fell by about 4.5 percent and foundation contributions grew by about 3 percent, according to the report.

Nationwide, recipients collected about $307.7 billion last year, down from the record of about $314.1 billion in 2007, according to the report, which was done for the foundation by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. The only other annual decrease since the report was first published in 1956 occurred during the 1987 recession, when giving declined by 1.3 percent.

Local charities said they have been struggling as the economy has faltered, just as many nonprofit agencies, such as food banks and homeless shelters, have been experiencing skyrocketing demand for their services. A surge in giving around the November and December holidays probably prevented a worse overall picture, some said.

"I'm just pleased it wasn't worse," said Chuck Bean, executive director of the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington, a group of almost 200 nonprofit agency leaders.

If inflation is considered, the drop was about 5.7 percent, although most charities view their numbers in current dollars, said Nancy Raybin, a New York philanthropy consultant and past chairwoman of the Giving USA Foundation. She said nonprofit groups historically have been able to count on at least a 4 percent increase in donations annually. Even so, Raybin said, many companies would envy a 2 percent decline during a sour economy.

"The fact that there were more than $300 billion in contributions this year says that despite how bad things are around us, Americans are still generous," Raybin said.

Contributions to religious organizations increased nationally by about 5.5 percent, to about $106.9 billion, according to the report. Raybin said she believes that many people turned to churches, synagogues and other spiritual centers when their livelihoods were threatened, and those organizations are especially effective at appealing to people's sense of helping the less fortunate.

"I think those were comforting places for people when things were going wrong around them," Raybin said.

Bean said environmental groups and arts organizations that depend on ticket sales have been especially hard hit, and some nonprofit groups, such as those catering to the needy, are holding on and have even thrived. The final six weeks of last year proved crucial, when holiday giving and end-of-the-year tax considerations coincided with a media focus on rising unemployment and home foreclosures, he said.

Susan Kirk, executive director of Bethesda Cares, which serves the homeless, said the organization collected about $50,000 more last year than in 2007, but only after donations spiked at the end of the year after several "dry months" during the economy's fall. She said donations are holding "fairly steady" this year.

"It's like people are thinking, 'If I'm going to give money, I want it to be local," Kirk said. "I think people are being much more careful where they're giving money, but they haven't stopped."

She said the money has been well-used, with double the number of people seeking free lunches and assistance with utility bills from Bethesda Cares.

Kasandra Gunter Robinson, a spokeswoman for the Capital Area Food Bank, said donations, both in cash and food, increased slightly in 2008.

"The theory is people are giving to organizations that are serving basic needs," she said.

For those contemplating how much to give when they're worried about their incomes, Raybin had this advice: "I'd ask people to identify their three top charities that are most important to them and try to make sure they contribute something. Just don't walk away."

The report is available at

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