What We Measure—and What We Value

We’re loving all the conversation around the recently released Giving USA 2020 report. Not surprisingly, 2019 was an extremely strong year for giving⁠—in fact it was the second highest on record, even when adjusted for inflation.

Giving is often a visible, public statement of what an individual donor cares about.

A healthy 4.2 percent increase in dollars given (year-over-year) is in line with the sector’s expectations, considering how stock market gains would have impacted individuals’ accumulated assets in 2019. We’re also hearing common-sense caveats about how 2020 is shaping up (less rosy—more on that below!)

  • Individuals—giving while living and by bequest—account for 79 percent of the growing “pie.” That’s still the biggest slice, but foundations now account for a larger share than ever, at 17 percent of the pie. What we are likely seeing is the migration of individual wealth into family foundations over time, and gifts being disbursed from those foundations.
  • The only category of recipient organizations that saw a decline in giving was international affairs—and even this was a very modest .4 percent decline, on the heels of a dramatic increase in the previous year. Giving to international affairs tends to track closely with awareness of global catastrophic events, which in 2019 did not increase dramatically beyond 2018 levels. In 2020, we’ll likely see giving related to COVID-19 reflected in this category as well as in the domestic human services and health categories.

What does this all mean for 2020? The current year shows every sign of being an anomalous year for the nonprofit sector, to put it mildly. Anecdotally, we know that many organizations put routine asks on pause as early as March while donors of every kind focused on the COVID-19 crisis and related hardships. Many families radically altered their daily lives. And more recently, communities around the nation rapidly escalated calls for meaningful action around systemic racial injustices. Every week, new goalposts seem to appear on the horizon—and that’s a good thing, because it means people are seeing new paths forward through serious challenges and voicing brave new ambitions.

We know that giving is a reflection of personal values; it’s often a visible, public statement of what an individual donor cares about, believes in, and stands for. And nothing motivates donors quite like seeing signs that their giving is, in fact, bringing about the intended outcomes.

It might be hard to measure the levels of civic participation we’re witnessing in this moment or to quantify recent outpourings of generosity, but we can certainly see outcomes—families kept whole, the spread of COVID-19 being slowed, long-entrenched policies changing. And millions of individuals are coming away with a transformed understanding of their own agency and power, which we know is a gateway to a lifelong practice of active civic participation. We’re proud to have the opportunity to capture and reflect back to wider audiences these stories of impact—from the very urgent and accessible stories of basic needs being met to the more subtle and nuanced stories of whole communities thriving, celebrating, and striving to create beauty and knowledge. When you’re ready to resume reaching out to donors to connect them with ways to make a difference, we’re ready to help. This moment must be a turning point for all of us.