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Giving rebounds

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By Ret Boney

After several years of marginal progress, Americans are opening their wallets a bit wider, a new study says.

Americans gave a record total of $248.52 billion to charity last year, up 2.3 percent from 2003, after adjusting for inflation, according to “Giving USA 2005,” a report funded by the Giving USA Foundation and conducted by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

“That’s a good solid increase after you adjust for inflation,” says Henry Goldstein, chair of the Giving USA Foundation.  “That follows five years of what some have called anemic or so-so growth.  I think those are key takeaways.”

Religious groups captured the majority of donations, receiving $88.3 billion in 2004, or 13.6 percent of total giving, followed by educational institutions, with $33.8 billion, and health organizations, with $22 billion.

Giving to human services fell slightly last year, after adjusting for inflation, to $19.2 billion, its third straight inflation-adjusted drop.

“That’s a decline of 1.1 percent, and this is the third year of declines,” says Goldstein.  “We haven’t seen anything like that since the 1970’s and that’s a matter of some concern.”

Individuals accounted for three-quarters of overall giving, the study says, donating almost 2 percent of their disposable income to charities for a total of $187.9 billion, up 1.4 percent over 2003, adjusted for inflation.

Individuals left an additional $19.8 million through bequests, up 6.4 percent after adjusting for inflation.

The reports estimates 70 percent to 80 percent of Americans, or more than 100 million people, donate to at least one nonprofit each year.

Foundations gave $28.8 billion last year, up 4.5 percent, adjusted for inflation, while corporations and corporate foundations gave $12 billion in cash and donated products and services, also up 4.5 percent from the previous year.

Overall, more than half of survey respondents say their contributions increased in 2004, with six in 10 of the largest charities, or those with more than $20 million in contributions, seeing increases, compared to slightly less than half of groups with fewer than $1 million in contributions.

Online giving in the U.S. grew to about $2.6 billion last year, or slightly less than half of global online giving, according to the ePhilanthropy Foundation in Washington, D.C.

While the December tsunami prompted an outpouring of donations, those contributions accounted for less than one half of 1 percent of total giving in 2004, the study says, and likely will range between $1.5 and $2.5 billion in 2005.

Calculations by Giving USA have been criticized by Empty Tomb, a Champagne, Ill., nonprofit that studies giving to churches and says the study should factor in population and economic expansion to reach a more accurate giving total.

According to Empty Tomb’s calculations, the new giving numbers are less robust, with giving accounting for 2.12 percent of gross domestic product, down slightly from 2003.

“They’re just wrong,” says Goldstein of Empty Tomb’s criticisms.  “We do measure the economy and adjust for inflation.”

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