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Charitable Giving: Which Americans Are the Most Generous?

Posted on Mon, Sep 09, 2013

Economic recovery seems to foster generosity. The 2013 Giving USA study finds that contributions to charitable organizations are up, but they have a long way to go to return to pre-recession levels. The study and another recently released survey shed light on the latest demographic and technological trends that affect charities. This article reveals which Americans are the most generous and how they use the Internet to make donations, as well as the tax rules you must follow to claim deductible contributions on your tax return. 

Charitable giving is growing at a healthy pace, a sign that Americans are a little more confident about the economy and their own finances.

Individuals, corporations and foundations donated $316.2 billion to charitable causes in 2012, a 3.5% increase over 2011, according to the annual Giving USA study, which is conducted by the Giving USA Foundation and Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

Ten Important Facts about
Charitable Tax Deductions

Charitable contributions are deductible only if you itemize on your tax return.

To be deductible, charitable contributions must be made to "qualified" organizations. Giving money to an individual is never deductible. To determine if an organization qualifies as a charitable organization, go to the IRS Exempt Organizations Select Check.

To deduct a charitable donation of money, regardless of the amount, you must have a bank record or a written document from the charity showing its name, the date and amount of the contribution. Bank records include canceled checks, bank or credit union statements, and credit card statements. These statements should show the name of the charity, the date, and the amount paid. Credit card statements should also show the transaction posting date.

For a gift of $250 or more (cash or property), you must obtain and keep in your records a contemporaneous written acknowledgment from the qualified organization indicating the amount of cash or a description of property contributed. The acknowledgment must state whether the organization provided goods or services in exchange for the gift. If so, the organization must provide a description and a good faith estimate of the value of the goods or services. One document from an organization can satisfy both the written communication requirement for monetary gifts and the contemporaneous written acknowledgment requirement for all contributions of $250 or more.

To be deductible, clothing and household items donated to charity generally must be in good used condition or better. Household items include furniture, electronics, appliances and linens.

A clothing or household item for which a taxpayer claims a deduction of more than $500 doesn't have to meet the standard described above if you include a qualified appraisal with the return.

If a contribution entitles you to merchandise, goods, or services, including admission to a charity ball, banquet, theatrical performance, or sporting event, you can deduct only the amount that exceeds the fair market value of the benefit received.

If your deduction for a non-cash contribution is more than $500, IRS Form 8283 must be filled out and attached it to your return. If you claim a deduction for a contribution of non-cash property worth more than $5,000, you need a qualified appraisal. If you claim a deduction for a contribution of non-cash property worth more than $500,000, you must attach the qualified appraisal to your return.

The deduction for a motor vehicle, boat or airplane donated to charity is usually limited to the gross proceeds from its sale. This rule applies if the claimed value is more than $500. IRS Form 1098-C or a similar statement, must be provided to the donor by the organization and attached to the donor's tax return.

Contributions are deductible in the year made. So donations charged to a credit card before the end of 2013 count for 2013. This is true even if the credit card bill isn't paid until 2014. Also, checks count for 2013 as long as they're mailed in 2013.

Questions about charitable contributions? Consult with your tax adviser.

A Partial Recovery

As encouraging as those numbers are, charitable giving was still below the level it reached before the 2008 financial crisis ($344.5 billion in 2007)  and is not likely to get back there for six or seven years at its current growth rate, said Patrick M. Rooney, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Research at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

"Individual giving rose 1.9% after inflation, perhaps reflecting the fact that the average household is still struggling in some areas," Rooney said in the university's report on the study, which has been conducted every year since 1955.

Another dark cloud hovering over charitable giving is that the Obama administration and some members of Congress want to limit or eliminate the federal tax deduction for it.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy, quoting "non-profit advocates," stated that limiting the charitable giving tax deduction to 28%, as the White House has again proposed, would reduce giving by as much as $9 billion per year.

Sources of Charitable Contributions

Individuals gave $228.9 billion in 2012, which is more than all other philanthropic entities combined. Private foundations gave the second largest amount in 2012. Foundations donated $45.7 billion last year, a 4.4% increase over 2011.

The next most generous group comprised the recently departed who had bequeathed money to charities in their wills. Although such bequests fell by 7% in 2012, they still added up to $23.4 billion.

Then came corporations, whose charitable giving rose 12.2% last year to $18.2 billion. That amount included donations by the corporations and their foundations. They gave cash, in-kind donations, and grants. The large annual increase in corporate giving is due in large part to corporations giving about $131 million to not-for-profit organizations working on Hurricane Sandy relief.

"Corporations represent a vital portion of our country's total charitable giving," said Gregg Carlson, chairman of the Giving USA Foundation. "And while their donations increased last year, corporate philanthropy represents only 6% of total giving."

Recipients of the Generosity

Among beneficiaries of all this generosity, the most blessed, if you will, were religious entities, according to the Giving USA study. They took in about $101.5 billion in 2012, slightly less than in 2011.

Educational institutions received $41.3 billion in contributions last year, an increase of 7% over 2011. The majority of these donations went to colleges and universities.

Human services giving, such as for disaster relief, amounted to $40.4 billion last year, a 3.8% increase over 2011. Total contributions for Hurricane Sandy relief were $223 million.

And giving to foundations amounted to $30.6 billion. That was down by 4.6% from 2011. "Estimated contributions to foundations can change dramatically from year to year, depending upon very large gifts received from the wealthiest donors in America," stated the Giving USA study.

"The $316 billion in total giving reflected by our 2012 data continues the positive twin trajectory of dollars coupled with hope," Carlson said. "I would say the outlook is positive for those who believe in and understand the power of American philanthropy."

A Closer Look at Demographics

Blackbaud, a software and service provider for not-for-profit organizations, commissioned a recent survey to identify charitable trends for various age groups. The survey discovered that Baby Boomers are the most generous.

People between 49 and 67 years old account for 43% of charitable giving and each one gives about $1,200 per year, the survey found. It said 63% of Baby Boomers donated clothing and other goods to charities, 52% gave to local social service providers and 46% gave to places of worship.

Americans age 68 and older give about $1,370 per year, more per capita than Baby Boomers do. However, their total annual contributions are less than that of the Baby Boomers because there are fewer of them. About 72% of "Matures," as Blackbaud refers to them, donate goods, 55% to local social service providers and 50% to places of worship. Older people are more likely than others to donate their time. About 42% of them volunteer.

Generation X, consisting of people between ages 33 and 48, give an average of $732 per year. 40% of them donate to places of worship, 39% to health charities and 37% to social service agencies. 56% of Generation Xers give goods to charity.

Finally, the survey looked at Generation Y. This cohort, consisting of people between ages 18 and 32, gave an average of $481 per year to 3.3 charities. They prefer charities oriented toward children and healthcare. They also demand the most accountability from nonprofits. 60% of Gen Y want to see the direct impact of their donations.

Technology Trends

Not surprisingly, Gen Yers are the most likely of all age groups to give via a mobile phone and share information about their preferred charities on social media, according to the Blackbaud survey. They were also the most apt to view online videos about charities and follow beneficiaries on social media. Gen Xers were close behind in these trends, however.

The Blackbaud survey also looked at whether different age groups use mobile phones as their primary phone. Almost all Gen Yers do (98%), compared with 86% of Gen Xers, 60% of Baby Boomers and 30% of Matures.

Here are a couple more tech findings from the survey:


  Who Banks Online? Who Is on Facebook?

Gen Y

80% 90%

Gen X

78% 77%

Baby Boomers

72% 71%


60% 59%

Tips for Charities

Here are a couple considerations from Blackbaud for not-for-profits hoping to most effectively reach today's donors:

Direct mail isn't dead. For example, 52% of Matures and 40% of Baby Boomers gave in response to a direct mail solicitation. It is not the vehicle of choice for younger givers, however. So not-for-profit organizations need to cultivate other channels, such as Internet video and Facebook. While you might expect that 97% of 18-to-32 year olds watch YouTube videos, you may be surprised to find that 58% of those age 68 and older do, too.

Take a multi-channel approach. Targeting different generations through the Internet, social media, direct mail and other channels will maximize potential gifts.

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