U.S. Charitable Giving Reached All-Time High in 2017:
What About Jewish Philanthropy?

By Robert I. Evans

Charitable giving in the United States in 2017 reached a record high of more than $410 billion, according to Giving USA, the major annual report that closely follows trends and actual philanthropic activities across the U.S. Released today, the report reflects that nonprofits received $410.02 billion in 2017, a 5.2% increase in current dollars and a 3% increase in inflation-adjusted dollars over the results reported for 2016.

Giving by Jewish donors is never segregated in this report, although an analysis of the reported list of million dollar and over gifts as tracked by the Chronicle of Philanthropy indicates strong charitable activity by wealthy Jewish donors. Calculations not included in the GUSA study suggest that approximately $4.8 billion in gifts went to Jewish and non-Jewish institutions from Jewish sources in 2017.

The largest Jewish gifts in 2017 seldom went to Jewish entities, a trend that we have been following for many decades. Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, led the list of all major donors with a $1.8 billion gift to their foundation and an additional $162.4 million to their donor advised fund. Jewish “mega” donors included Michael and Susan Dell, David Geffen, and Henry and Susan Samueli, all of whom who made very large gifts to higher education, the arts, or their own foundations.

This is the fourth consecutive year of increased giving nationwide and Giving USA highlights several data points that should be noted by the 1.2 million nonprofits actively seeking philanthropic support:

  • Tax law changes in late 2017 undoubtedly impacted some major year-end gifts but they don’t appear to be major factors in decision-making by donors;
  • Most domestic sectors of the nonprofit community received increased financial support in 2017 but the full report notes that giving as a percentage of Gross National Product (GDP), one of the most important factors in measuring a nation’s economic health, stayed at 2.1%. Giving has stayed at this level since 2002;
  • However, giving to traditional domestic umbrella campaigns has continued to decline.
  • Giving to international causes or institutions has generally decreased.

When looking at the impact of total giving by Jewish donors, “we should remember that the regular community seemed to recover faster from the 2008 downturn in the U.S. economy than the Jewish community,” according to Andrés Spokoiny, president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network (JFN). He notes that the ongoing goal to attract high net worth Jews and their charitable dollars to support Jewish institutions and causes remains a major priority of JFN.

“We are trying very hard to inspire them to help Jewish causes,” he said, “and this will probably be a permanent struggle.”

He highlighted several trends in 2017 that JFN leaders are continuing to emphasize and which seem to be emphasized by GUSA:

  • There is a significant trend toward collaboration, by donors and by nonprofits;
  • Donor engagement in the U.S. is increasingly important;
  • A level of fatigue exists when looking at traditional approaches to advocacy;
  • Funders are evaluating their effectiveness and expect that recipient organizations are also evaluating donor impact.

The philanthropic arena is facing a period of significant challenges, different vocabulary and new approaches, especially as reflected in giving trends and practices from 2017.

The GUSA report was researched and written by the faculty at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and the project is underwritten by donors through the Giving Institute. Key findings are avilable for [free] download and a full copy of the report can be purchased at https://givingusa.org/.

Robert Evans is founder and president of the Evans Consulting Group, a full-service firm that helps nonprofits address their strategic and fundraising goals. Now in its 27th year, Evans Consulting leads fundraising campaigns, facilitates strategic planning processes, engages in donor research and cultivation, coaches nonprofit leaders and performs a number of other development-related services. Mr. Evans is a former member of the Giving USA editorial review board and is also a board member of the Giving Institute. He can be reached at revans@theevansconsultinggroup.com.