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Charitable giving hit nearly $428 billion last year. Who gave it? Who got it?

Charitable giving by individual was down a little in 2018. (Times 2018)
Charitable giving by individual was down a little in 2018. (Times 2018)
Published Jun. 20, 2019

If you felt a little less charitable last year, you're not alone.

Americans forked over fewer dollars to their favorite nonprofits, but foundations and corporations more than made it up.

The final tally: $428 billion, up nearly $3 billion over the previous year.

We gave more to save the environment and to groups that look after animals, according to Giving USA's annual look at the country's philanthropy. Churches and schools saw their haul drop. Gifts to foundations also fell.

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For several years, most sectors pulled in more money than the year before. Sometimes a lot more.

What ended the streak?

The overall economy and disposable incomes grew, which helped put more money in people's pockets. But the good news was tempered by a volatile stock market, which experienced a big plunge late in the year.

Tax law changes also dented charitable giving. The standard deduction for individuals and couples nearly doubled, diminishing the tax benefit of giving to charity. More than 45 million households itemized deductions in 2016. That number likely fell below 20 million last year, Giving USA reported.

The changes help explain why organizations like churches that rely on donations from middle-class families suffered more than ones that rely on wealthy donors or garner corporate support.

Most people don't give to get a tax deduction, but the deduction influences the amount they give, said Una Osili, an associate dean at Indiana University's Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, which researched and wrote the report.

"Putting all of this together, we have a much more nuanced and mixed picture of giving in 2018," she said.

Other notable findings from the report:

• Individual giving fell below 70 percent of the total for the first time since at least 1954. It decreased by 1.1 percent from $295 billion to $292 billion, the biggest drop since the Great Recession.

• Giving by foundations hit a record high of $76 billion, twice what it was in 2006. Family foundations contributed nearly half of the total.

• Corporations also gave more than ever, $20 billion. Health care companies accounted for the biggest part of the increase. Communications companies had the largest drop.

• The $124.5 billion giving to religious organizations made up the largest slice of the total, despite a year-over-year drop attributed to the tax changes, declining church attendance and the ongoing clergy child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. • Giving to arts, culture and humanities remained about the same at $19.5 billion, as did contributions to health organizations, nearly $41 billion.

Smaller charities continued to embrace digital and social media platforms to attract larger audiences. Blood:Water, a Nashville-based nonprofit that partners with African organizations to fight the water and HIV/AIDS crises, used email, Facebook and Google apps to boost revenue by 7 percent, said Rick Dunham, chairman of the Giving USA Foundation. For every dollar spent on fundraising, the group got $6 back.

"That's helping them grow a sustainable funding base," he said.

The ability of small groups to leverage new technologies has a flip side: Large multi-faceted charities like United Way Worldwide that dominated the philanthropy landscape in past decades are struggling to find their place. Adjusted for inflation, United Way's fundraising is less than two-thirds what it was in 1990, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

The slide helps explain the drop in giving to the public-society benefit sector, which includes the United Way and groups that tackle everything from civil liberties to consumer rights. Donations fell by more than $1 billion last year to $31.2 billion.

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Suzanne McCormick, president and CEO of the United Way Suncoast in Tampa, said digital platforms give companies and employees a lot more ways to connect with their favorite causes.

"They don't necessarily need a conduit like the United Way," said McCormick, who was recently named U.S. president of the organization. "What we can do is help identify the needs that are going unfulfilled in a community."

As for charitable giving this year, there are fears that individual donations could drop again as more taxpayers get their heads around the new tax laws. The bigger factors will likely be how the stock market performs and whether the economy holds up in the second half of the year.

Contact Graham Brink at gbrink@tampabay.com. Follow @GrahamBrink.

Winners and losers

Giving USA broke the charitable giving into nine sectors.

International affairs: Up 9.6 percent

Environmental & animal organizations: Up 3.6 percent

Arts and culture: Up 0.3 percent

Health: Up 0.1 percent

Human services: Down 0.3 percent

Educational: Down 1.3 percent

Religious: Down 1.5 percent

Public-society benefit organizations: Down 3.7 percent

Foundations: Down 6.9 percent

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