Half empty, or half full?

Who’re you gonna believe?  The Chicago Tribune says charitable giving just keeps going up–and thinks the news is so exciting it reports it twice; the New York Times says giving is disappointingly flat in the absence of any big sexy disaster in 2006.  And what’s scary is, they’re describing the exact same Giving USA annual review.

More proof, if any were needed, that journalists don’t really understand the nonprofit sector–or rather that it’s hard for lay people to tell the difference between those who don’t and those who do.

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2 Responses to “Half empty, or half full?”

  1. Stephanie Strom Says:

    I’m the reporter behind the Times story you cite. You make fun of the Times and the Trib for looking at the annual charitable giving stats and coming to opposite conclusions I’d note here that the Trib ran an A.P. story, not its own product), but you, the expert, do not tell us what you make of the numbers. I’d love to know!

  2. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Some of the analysis I was looking for appears in the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s coverage of the same report: http://philanthropy.com/free/articles/v19/i18/18002701.htm. The Chronicle’s writer makes what seems to me the relevant comparison: that charitable giving grew more slowly than the value of stock-market portfolios, so most rich people (unlike Warren Buffett) are getting richer and hanging on to their money. This means that your account (“giving essentially flat”) is more accurate than that of the AP or the Tribune, though it might have been more accurate still to say that impulse giving (e.g. for disasters) shrank while predictable giving grew.

    What’s missing from all the accounts is the mysterious non-impact of “the biggest intergenerational transfer of wealth in history,” which for most of the 90s was predicted to be about to transform the charitable sector. Many if not most Baby Boomers have indeed inherited their frugal parents’ wealth, but very little of it seems to be spilling out into the nonprofit economy. Are the heirs still paying for their kids’ college educations? Can we expect a windfall later?

    Also missing–from any of these stories–is an account of how much charitable giving is going to foundations and donor-advised funds, meaning not really going to charity at all, at least not yet.

    Other thoughts: the increase in gifts to arts groups (most of which are bricks-and-mortar gifts) represents a familiar phenomenon, albeit one previously associated more with higher education than with the arts: wealth used to purchase prestige. It’s likely to be a short-term phenomenon for precisely this reason: once there’s a Kleiman Center for the Performing Arts, my giving to the arts is finished. By contrast, increased support for environmental causes (which reflects wealth giving to preserve its own future) is likely to continue, and even accelerate, as Americans’ denial about climate change melts in the sun glaring through the ozone hole.

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