Americans love to give. A centuries-old philanthropical urge is going nowhere, with individual donations peaking in 2017 at over $420 billion. A slight dip in 2018 has been attributed to a change to the tax code, which made it more difficult for US donors to deduct their charitable donations.
Perhaps surprisingly, the greatest growth over this time comes from individual contributions. Corporate giving has barely changed over the decades, even as the general public grows warier of institutions and big business. (Reputation management, if it ever worked, doesn’t seem to be having the desired effect.) Instead, it’s wealthy individuals who are making the greatest impact. For the most part, they’re doing it while they’re still alive, instead of making bequests in their will.
Charitable foundations are also on the rise. There are currently almost 80,000 of them in the US, of which the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the largest. It has total assets of around $40 billion, almost four times that of the second-largest foundation, the Ford Foundation.
The US remains the world’s most generous country, due to a combination of its tax code, a disinclination to give the government too much power, and a deep-seated culture of giving. But it’s much harder to draw conclusions about what links other generous countries. In South Korea, for instance, charitable donations have boomed as its economy has grown, tripling from 2.9 trillion won (US$2.5 billion) in 1999 to 9.61 trillion won in 2009. The same is not necessarily true for other developing nations, such as China.
Elsewhere in the world, high per-capita wealth doesn’t necessarily correlate with a strong culture of giving. Switzerland and Sweden have the highest and third-highest individual wealth of any country in the world. Neither makes it into the top ten. Meanwhile, India is among the world’s most charitable nations, even as its citizens are among the poorest.
Every year, the Charities Aid Foundation publishes the Giving Index, which measures philanthropy not only in how much money is given but in their wider attitudes toward charity. People are asked about how often they help strangers, donate to charity, or volunteer their time. The results tell a different story to factoring donations only as a proportion of GDP, with a much greater share from the developing world. More than half of all Indonesians polled said they had volunteered at some point in the past month, while 88% of people in Myanmar had donated money.
These are the countries at the top of the Giving Index:
Even as the US grows more secular, faith-based giving is still very popular. Religious charities received 29%, or nearly $125 billion, of all donations in 2018—more than donations to education and human services put together—with many of these donations coming from people donating to their local place of worship.
This comes through in America’s top 10 favorite charities by annual donations, of which three are religious institutions. Despite a growing push toward transparency, religious charities in the US are not required to file 990 forms disclosing their finances to the IRS. Giving to education charities rose 6.2% last year, though already very wealthy universities seem to have been the primary beneficiaries: Harvard and Stanford are in the top 10 richest universities by endowment, with Cornell in 18th place. Meanwhile, United Way operates around the US, often collecting from businesses on behalf of employees and dispersing to other, smaller charities.
That top ten is a tiny, tiny fraction of the total, however. The number of charities is now more than 50% larger than 15 years earlier.
The top ten most generous US corporations are not necessarily the largest. ExxonMobil, the eighth most generous US company, is the fourth largest, while other philanthropic big-hitters don’t make it into the top ten.
Philanthropy among the super-wealthy has had a boost from initiatives such as Bill Gates’ Giving Pledge, which implores billionaires to give away at least half of their wealth. More than 200 people from 22 nations have since signed the pledge, with around half of all signatories from the US. Another 1,800 or so billionaires are yet to sign, including Jeff Bezos, the world’s wealthiest person.
Most donations were rather more modest, however. US households gave $2,520 on average, while high net-worth households with a net worth of $1 million or more and/or an annual household income of $200,000 or more donating $25,509 in 2015. Initiatives like #GivingTuesday proved a powerful incentive to donate, encouraging people to give $380 million in 2018, up from $10.1 million in 2012. Of these donations, $125 million came from donations made through Facebook.