David King, Chair, The Giving Institute
David H. King, CFRE, Chair
The Giving Institute

First, one unfinished piece of business from last year: When Giving USA 2013 was released, I wrote in this “Perspectives” column that saber-rattling from Washington about doing away with the tax deduction for charitable donations bore watching.

For now, it remains intact, but as I promised, the Giving Institute will continue its vigilance and report to the nation’s philanthropic constituency as necessary to sound an alert should attention need to be paid or specific actions taken.

Turning now to what else is both on the horizon and in the immediate past, I hope that in my purview as head of a fundraising consulting firm and chair of the Institute, the additional perspective below gleaned over the past 12 months will be viewed as helpful to those working in American philanthropy, as well as to those who donate to causes they care about:

It’s not enough to just read the headline touting the fourth straight year that American families, businesses and foundations increased their total giving to charitable groups. Taking at least some small measure of time to study the details (that’s where it is said the devil is, after all) reveals some important truths about giving in our society today. These combine both emerging trends and inescapable facts, in my opinion.

While total giving in 2013 was the highest we’ve seen since the Great Recession officially ended in 2009 – it reached $335.17 billion when adjusted for inflation – not every type, or subsector, of charity studied by Giving USA saw equal gains. This may well be reflective of how American donors are coping with post-recession economic realities. And let’s face it, historically, it is always about how we view our own particular pocketbooks and wallets that determines our response to an appeal for a donation, no matter how worthy the institution doing the asking.

Appealing to the heart does go hand-in-hand with cold-hard economic realities in most cases, of course, and sensing that neighbors, friends and others were hurting a few years ago drove changes in giving behavior – human services organizations received more.

A long-term societal trend continues to have an impact on the largest piece of the giving “pie” – donations to religion. With nonstop declines in the numbers of people either identifying with a particular faith or attending worship services regularly, giving to religion in 2013 reached its lowest level as a percentage of the total in more than 40 years and also declined in current dollars for the first time ever in a non-recession year.

From my perspective, religious institutions need to focus on how to reverse this slide.

On the growth side, over the past three years, giving to the arts, the environment, education and health has been consistently rising. With a slight exception for health-related causes, some donors pulled away from these types of organizations for the recession years.

And international affairs, growing apace for several years now, slowed down in 2013 – perhaps due to changes in corporate giving priorities, perhaps because thankfully international disasters requiring huge infusions of dollars did not occur. This could be a natural ebb and flow, or a trend, particularly when studying where corporations are headquartered.

Studying these changes and concomitant challenges, and discussing them with my colleagues in the professional fundraising community, is more than an intellectual exercise – it is how attention is brought to bear on the climate for donations our nation’s charitable organizations must understand if they are to continue to serve America’s philanthropic needs today and into the future.

I commend our Foundation and our research partner, the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, for once again preparing a report that is crucial to that understanding, and I hope you will glean much from its pages.