How Are You Philanthropic Rather Than How Much

Last week Vox had a provocatively titled article saying “Why fewer Americans are donating to charity.” Rising to that provocation, I read the fairly lengthy piece that essentially said that giving isn’t really down, but that the ways in giving is measured and defined are no longer as valid as they once were.

While billionaires are getting a lot of attention for their donations, even if the funds are placed into somewhat controversial donor advised funds, giving to political campaigns and issues groups, crowd funding efforts, mutual aid groups and in amounts of less than $25 are not being counted.

The reason people are choosing to give through these other channels is due to a perceived distrust of large institutions as well as the sense that your donations are having a more direct impact than if made to a large entity.

It’s easy to see the psychological draw of such person-to-person giving. You know to whom your money is going. It can feel more immediately impactful. You might also feel that your dollar is going further than when you give to a big cause…that already receives millions of dollars every year. That’s not to say giving to an online crowdfunding campaign is actually more impactful than giving to a nonprofit, but there’s a growing perception that it is, especially among younger Americans. According to a 2022 study by Independent Sector, a coalition of philanthropic nonprofits and corporate giving programs, 57 percent of Gen Z believe that giving directly has more impact than giving to nonprofits.

There is also a sense that by focusing on the singular act of check writing as a metric, a lot of charitable activity is being missed. (my emphasis):

In 2019, she [Lucy Bernholz] conducted a national study of 33 focus groups, asking hundreds of Americans not how much they gave or why they gave, but how they gave to make the world a better place. Their responses showed that giving money is only one small part of what philanthropy means for Americans. Giving time was just as frequently mentioned as giving money. Everyday acts of charity, such as sharing skills, giving items, and doing acts of service for neighbors and other community members, were very common.

These conversations also revealed participants’ uncertainty around whether some of their acts of generosity even counted as “giving.” Participants weren’t accustomed to thinking about or talking about how they gave, or discussing the definition of giving. It shows that the understanding of philanthropy is ambiguous, not fixed — and perhaps can evolve to be more inclusive.

The national organization behind GivingTuesday is apparently trying to adjust to the shifting sense of what constitutes philanthropy and attempting to measure all the ways in which people give to make the world a better place rather than focusing on how much people gave.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


3 thoughts on “How Are You Philanthropic Rather Than How Much”

  1. It is interesting to muse about how people give to the world, instead of just focusing on total $.

    In recent years I have started giving more to “projects” or departments rather than whole organizations, except in a few cases where I trust the people who run the organizations to make good decisions. For example, I don’t trust administrators at universities to allocate money reasonably (having seen how poor their decisions often are), but there are many groups within the university that I feel are doing good work that I’m willing to give to. Luckily the university I worked for has now made it possible for small groups to put up requests for funding and to get funding directly to the group. I’ve supported projects like student actors touring local schools putting on reduced Shakespeare plays, student opera, synthetic biology teams, and other worthy projects, without fearing that the admins will take my contributions to hire yet another ass. dean or ass. vice chancellor in charge of some ridiculous new initiative.

    • Based on your experience, I am sure you probably know to let people know the funds are coming. There have been a number of times funds for my area got mis-allocated or funds for other people got allocated to me. It was more a matter of the sheer amount of transactions the offices processed than any sort of shadiness. That is just what happens with large institutions

      • For the university contributions, the allocation software seems to work—I have gotten thank-you notes (and even some in-person thank-yous) from the suborganizations that were supposed to get the funds. I set up the community-college donations as an endowment fund (which doesn’t take a large contribution at the community college) designated for a specific department (the community-college extension, which gets no state funds and little attention from the philanthropists).

        Other contributions were mostly to organizations that were focussed enough that I didn’t need to designate what parts got the funds.


Leave a Comment