Americans Bullish On Giving


Robert Evans is founder and president of the Philadelphia-based Evans Consulting Group, which works with Jewish and other nonprofits on fundraising issues and other strategic matters. He is a member of the editorial review board for the annual Giving USA report of the School of Philanthropy at Indiana University. He previously served as campaign director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and as a senior executive at Israel Bonds. The Jewish Week caught up with him by phone just after the report was released.

Q.: The 61st annual Giving USA survey, which reports charitable giving by Americans in 2015, was just released. What was found?

A.: We thought that Americans would take longer to get back to the levels of 2007, which was the best year before the recession. Americans have recovered wealth and are intrinsically generous and philanthropic.

How much did Americans donate last year?

Total giving was $373 billion, an all-time high. And 87 percent came from individuals … [bequests and] family foundations. … More people in the U.S. make a charitable gift — two-thirds of Americans — than who vote for president, around 50 percent.

What did you learn about the Jewish community?

This is an all-time rich Jewish community. If you examine the Forbes 400 wealthiest households in America and assume that Jews represent 2 to 3 percent of the American population, it … [is noteworthy that] approximately 125 of the 400 are Jewish. If you use that as one indicator of where the Jewish community is in terms of amassed wealth, we have never seen it before.

Previously we saw wealthy Jewish donors coming out of real estate and retail. Now it is Wall Street and finance, which is one of the reasons for the massive success of the Wall Street UJA-Federation dinners.

Although this was not a Jewish study, per se, you came up with some findings regarding contributions to Jewish federations.

The category is called public society benefits and it includes traditional umbrella campaigns — United Way, UJA, United Negro College Fund. … Almost every Jewish federation is seeing decreased charitable giving — it was down 37 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars over the last 25 years — as is United Way and others. That is because American donors’ priorities have changed, because, increasingly, they want to touch the organization they are supporting — and it is very difficult to do that in an umbrella campaign.

It’s said that philanthropy is usually the last “obligation” people consider when times are tough. What do your findings tell you about the state of the U.S. economy?

Based on this report it shows great optimism, although there are some concerns about unemployment levels and so on. The number of donors has remained stable and the number of volunteer hours is up only slightly. … The Judeo-Christian code suggests tithing, which is 10 percent. But we are not seeing widespread tithing across America except in Utah, which is Mormon. As a result, Salt Lake City is the most generous city per capita.

Into what sector do most charitable dollars flow?

Religion — churches, synagogues, mosques, seminaries that train clergy. Although in 2015 it was a decreased percentage of the pie, it has been the number one sector in 61 years of surveys.

Education was the second largest sector.

The major colleges and universities of America have built up substantial fundraising machines and the reward is really big gifts. A $400 million gift last year to Harvard University was the largest in its history. Major universities have ramped up fundraising so that 70 percent of contributions to this category went to higher education. There are all sorts of ways you can support education and I think this bodes really well for Jewish day schools; I am bullish on that area.

Giving Tuesday, in which people are encouraged to donate to charity on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, was an idea started in 2012 at the 92 Street Y. Has it caught on nationally?

It has exploded nationally because of promotion, and more and more nonprofits are jumping onto the bandwagon. It totaled $116 million in gifts last year compared with $45 million the year before.