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.