Check out the Gladly apps
Get Goodblock
Get Tab for a Cause

Is America Becoming Less Charitable?

Is America becoming Less charitable header

“I’m too busy right now.”

That’s my usual go-to answer to the question of whether I should find some way to volunteer this weekend. One of the things I love about my job is that I feel I am working towards the greater good every single day. My job is to find ways to get more people to turn their internet activity into money for charity. Nonetheless it is my job, and I am getting paid. So does it really count as giving back?

I know lots of people like me. People who are working to make the world a better place but who rarely take time out of their busy days to remember what it feels like to actually lend a helping hand or take hard earned money out of their wallet and give it away. But is this a growing trend, or simply the balance of selfishness and selflessness that has always existed?

The total amount donated is higher than ever

According to Giving USA, America gave $335 billion in 2013, up 4.4 percent from 2012. As the recession slips farther into the past, Giving USA projects that 2015 will break the record for total money donated that was set in 2007.

Source: Giving USA 2014
Source: Giving USA 2014

Individuals, not corporations account for the majority of the increase

Individual giving accounts for 72 percent of the total, up 4.2% from 2012. Corporate giving is actually down 2% from 2012.

Religious organizations still receive the biggest slice of the pie, followed by Education, Human Services, and foundations. International affairs received a lot less money in 2014, for the simple reason that there weren’t any major natural disasters. Hurricanes and Tsunamis empty pocketbooks, but getting money for a difficult-to-market crisis like Ebola is a different story entirely.

Despite the net increase, fewer people are donating

According to Mark Hrywna of The NonProfit Times, “charities in general are raising money from a shrinking donor universe.” Indeed, a Gallup poll shows that the percentage of people that reported donating to charity is lower than it’s been in the last 10 years.

Giving USA notes that “Individuals, especially those who are wealthier, are becoming more confident about giving to the causes they care about.” While the wealthiest people may be donating more money in total, according to Katia Savchuk of Forbes  the percentage of their income that they donated in 2012 was 4.5% lower than in 2006. So the reason the wealthiest are giving more has at least as much to do with the amount they are making as with how charitable they are becoming.

Volunteerism trends mirror donations

According to, the value of volunteering (volunteer hours * average value of a volunteer hour) last year was around $173 billion. That’s a huge amount, even in context of how much cash we donate.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ annual report shows that the volunteer rate at 25.4% of the population is down 1.1% from last year, setting a 10 year record low. Interestingly, the total volunteer hours has remained constant over the last 10 years, with only a few minor dips and rises. Just like dollars donated, a higher output from fewer people keeps the total numbers from dropping.

The demographics that explain the drop in volunteer rate are slightly different from the financial distinctions that explain the donation numbers. The highly educated, aka people with a bachelor’s degree or higher, have historically been by far the most likely group to volunteer. While that is still true, the volunteer rate in the educationally elite has seen a substantial dip (3% in the last 5 years). Nathan Dietz, a senior research associate at the Center on Nonprofits & Philanthropy of The Urban Institute in Washington, D.C, calls this decline in volunteering amongst the most highly educated a possible “canary in the coal mine.” The fact that the people with advanced degrees, who typically have jobs and stable incomes, aren’t volunteering their time could be a sign that attitudes towards volunteering are changing.

So just as with donations, fewer people are pitching in, but the ones that do are giving more than ever. As a result, the total numbers are either going up or staying relatively the same.

Online donations are growing rapidly

A 13% increase since last year makes online donations by far the fastest growing revenue source, and the number of ways to turn your online activity into money for charity increases every day. Amazon Smile will donate money with every purchase, Freerice turns trivia into food donations, and yes, Tab for a Cause is another way to give back without expending any of your own time or money.

These things are great in that they are becoming a huge source of money for charities, but It is difficult to know whether these methods of “virtual donation” will encourage or discourage donation in other categories. In other words, after donating via Freerice, is someone more or less likely to go down to the soup kitchen or to write a check to More on that to come in a future post.

The verdict?

Sadly, when we look at “charitableness” as a proportion of people volunteering or donating, America appears to be becoming less charitable. The historically stable percentages of people that donate or volunteer are declining. Simply put, there are more of us who are giving nothing at all.

Many different factors are at play in determining why people donate and how much they give. The increase in total amount given has as much to do with the growing income gap as it does with a change in how many people are donating. The decline in religion also plays a key role. For example, when Gallup separates “giving to a non religious cause” from “giving to religious institution” we see that the percentage of people who report doing the former is relatively unchanged.

It is the religious donations that have dropped dramatically, both in percentage of people that donate and in total donation amount. Perhaps the people who are no longer giving were people that previously gave to their church or temple. Similarly, the drop in volunteering amongst the educationally elite may reflect the drop in religious participation in that group.

There are many ways to look at the numbers and and analyze them based on economic, social, and other influences. A separate discussion can and should be had about how each one of these factors contributes to who feels the need to donate and how much they can afford to give.

Most people have every intention of giving, but our busy lives often get in the way. How can we take the step from intention to action and stop this downward trend? If the ALS ice bucket challenge taught us anything, it is that social sharing can be a powerful tool in motivating goodwill. So how do you incorporate charitable giving into your life?

Written by Joey DeBruin, Marketing Manager, @Joey_Gladly