How Americans choose to support various causes


Darren K. Woods

The subject of charitable giving was on my mind a great deal over the holidays, as it often is when you run a nonprofit arts organization. There is a strong chance you received letters from organizations such as mine making their way into your mailboxes. If history is any indication, many of these appeals succeed, as people are incredibly generous about causes in which they believe, especially this time of year. Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that Giving USA: The Annual Report on Philanthropy estimated that U.S. nonprofits and houses of worship received an amazing $316 billion in donations in 2012, with more than 70 percent of the gifts donated by individuals and families. Despite the recession in 2008, in recent years American charitable gifts amounted to more than the entire gross domestic product of prosperous countries such as Israel and Denmark. Data from various studies and surveys provide more insight into how Americans choose to give each year. The University of Michigan’s Panel Study of Income Dynamics reports that approximately two-thirds of Americans contributed to charity in 2009, even in the deepest point of the recession. In addition, the average family contributed $1,239 or 1.6 percent of average income. They also found, as expected, that as incomes rose, contributions correspondingly increased. All of this is good news, but what causes me to ponder these statistics is the question of what is at the root of giving. Many point to federal tax breaks as a major motivator for annual gifts. With the fate of these incentives hanging in the balance, I wanted to investigate their impact a little further.

Last October I spent a couple of days on Capitol Hill visiting our congressmen and congresswomen to ask them about the fate of the tax code’s charitable deduction, changes in which have been bandied about as a possible way raise revenue. During insightful conversations with the arts and education aides of many political figures, from U.S. Rep. Roger Williams (R-Austin) to Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), I discovered there is strong support for the charitable deduction and relatively good support for the arts. In December 2012, when the U.S. economic sector was facing sequester, an article in the Wall Street Journal explored the idea of doing away with the charitable deduction. Daniel J. Mitchell, a senior fellow with the CATO Institute and a top expert on tax reform, explained, “There’s no evidence the tax break leads people to increase their giving … What’s more, it favors a segment of the public, the very wealthy, that can afford to give without the break. And cutting the deduction does a lot less economic harm than other ways of raising tax revenue.” He also contended that charitable giving tends to hover around 2 percent of GDP no matter what the incentive; therefore trying to influence people’s decisions by giving them a tax break is pointless, he reasoned. Arguing for the other side was Diana Aviv, president and CEO of Independent Sector, the national leadership network for America’s nonprofits, foundations and corporate giving programs. She stated emphatically, “Limiting the charitable deduction would be a tremendous mistake, with potentially catastrophic consequences for groups that do good. This bit of tax law is a crucial incentive that gets people to give, and give deeper than they otherwise would. Limiting it – or worse yet ending it – would rob funds from nonprofits at a time when charities are already struggling to meet increased demand for programs and services. It would also curtail one of the few government policies that encourage people to be generous with their money.”

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It is true that Americans give to charitable and arts causes for many reasons. It is also true that millions of taxpayers who do not itemize their returns give without the benefit of receiving a deduction. Yet more than 80 percent of those who itemized their tax returns in 2009 claimed the charitable deduction and were responsible for 76 percent of all the individual contributions to nonprofit organizations. Our nonprofits generate a great deal of economic impact for our communities. The Center for Nonprofit Management reports that in 2012, nonprofits contributed more than $1.51 trillion in total revenue. According to this figure, the nation’s nonprofit revenue alone would represent the 11th largest economy in the world, ahead of Russia, Spain, Australia and Mexico. According to the same study, nonprofits in North Texas contributed $27.2 billion to the local economy. If the charitable deduction is done away with and donations decline, I imagine churches, health and human service organizations and, yes, arts organizations will find themselves laying off employees, producing fewer goods and services, and at worst having to closing their doors. At the end of the day, I feel many people will give and be generous whether or not there is a tax deduction associated with their philanthropy, but the enormous questions remain – will they be as generous and will our economy suffer by losing this policy?

Darren K. Woods is general director of Fort Worth Opera.