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Americans are generally positive about charitable giving and nonprofits but know little about philanthropy, have concerns about transparency, study finds

originally posted on April 6, 2023

Many are unfamiliar with sector’s services, institutions, and debates affecting philanthropy’s future, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy research shows

At a time when there is concern about public confidence in society’s institutions, Americans have a broadly favorable impression of charitable giving and nonprofit organizations, but many know relatively little about how philanthropy functions, its impact on their lives, or how its current controversies could shape the future, a new study from the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy finds.

The report, What Americans Think About Philanthropy and Nonprofits, examines public awareness, attitudes and perceptions of philanthropy, philanthropic sector institutions, and policies that govern and affect charitable giving. It is based on a nationally representative survey of 1,334 adults conducted in summer 2022 (additional information is in the methodology section below). The research is funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Americans see philanthropic giving as valuable: more than three-quarters of those surveyed feel that society as whole benefits a large or moderate amount when Americans donate money to charity. About 80% said that in-kind giving (i.e., giving property such as clothes, household items, or a vehicle to a nonprofit), giving money to a qualified 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and direct person-to-person giving were very or somewhat important. Three out of four felt that mutual aid was very or somewhat important.

People surveyed generally defined philanthropy as the giving of time and/or money to nonprofit organizations. About four in 10 included giving of ties (making connections across one’s networks) or testimony (i.e., advocacy, honoring lived experiences, and bearing witness to stories). Younger people (Millennials and Gen Z), women, people with more education, and donors had more expansive views of what constitutes philanthropy compared to older people (primarily Baby Boomers and Gen X), men, people with less education, and nondonors. Philanthropy and nonprofits were viewed more positively than government and for-profit entities.

Yet despite these generally favorable opinions, just 5.4% of people surveyed said they or anyone in their immediate family received services from a charitable organization or nonprofit in the past year. Considering the many ways people engage with nonprofits in daily life, from education, disaster relief and religious services to amateur athletics, civic beautification or the arts, this suggests many Americans may not recognize that these and other public services are provided by nonprofits.

Additionally, only one in three people is aware that the percentage of Americans giving to charities declined markedly over the past two decades, even though the decrease has been widely discussed in the media and other public forums for years. People who give to charitable organizations were not significantly more likely to identify this trend than were nondonors. (continue reading)