Crisis Philanthropy in Education: Lessons from ‘Giving USA 2020’

Article by Rachel Jefferies
AskRIGHT / 12 August 2020

There is much we can learn from looking at past trends. Trend analysis helps us to understand what the future might look like, can also help us establish benchmarks and guide future decision-making in our fundraising programmes.

Giving USA 2020: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2019 was released in June this year. It provides insights from 40 years of trend data, tracking both overall charitable giving and giving in nine major sub-sectors, including education, from 1979 to 2019 and in relation to the US economy.

Giving USA is the longest-running, most comprehensive report on philanthropy in the United States. It pulls together data from 53 million households, 16 million businesses, over 1.4 million non-profits (inclusive of religious organisations), over a million estates, and 82,000 foundations. The report is presented by two organisations: the fundraising professionals at Giving USA Foundation, a public service initiative of The Giving Institute (AskRIGHT is a member of The Giving Institute), and the research team at The Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

Total charitable giving in the United States has been at record levels for the last three years. Americans gave USD 449.64 billion to charity in 2019. Robust growth in total giving was driven by individual giving and was largely due to positive US economic conditions.

Giving to education constituted 14% of total giving in 2019, equating to USD 64.11 billion. Of the nine major sub sectors, education was second only to religious organisations in the amount of charitable dollars received. Giving to education has been at its strongest in the last 10 years and has seen double-digit growth over the last 2 years. Between 2018 and 2019, it is estimated to have increased by 12.1% (10.1% when adjusted for inflation). Education organisations have received a growing amount of charitable dollars over the last 40 years, and this amount has consistently comprised between 11% and 14% of total giving.

Giving USA takes the education sub-sector to include:

  • K12 education (elementary and secondary education)
  • higher education
  • vocational/technical schools
  • graduate/professional schools
  • adult/continuing education
  • libraries
  • student services and organisations.

One of the areas of growth in K12 education philanthropy is online giving. The ease and opportunities that online giving enable mean that this should be a growing area of focus. According to Blackbaud Institute’s Charitable Giving Report, one of the many data sources that feed into Giving USA 2020, K12 education organisations received 10.7% of their total fundraising income last year through online giving methods. This K12 giving stream increased 2.2% between 2018 and 2019. The average online donation for K12 education organisations in 2019 was USD 1,503 – which was the highest reported by a considerable margin (compare USD 336 for healthcare, USD 287 for higher education, and USD 211 for faith-based organisations, for example). There is an expectation that online giving overall will continue to trend upwards.

Some public and independent K12 schools received very large, transformative gifts in 2019. Several independent schools received substantial gifts from parents and alumni. This included the largest gift ever by school alumni; it was made by internet entrepreneurs the Winklevoss twins, who together gave USD 10 million to their alma mater, an independent day school.

Philanthropy in Times of Crisis

As well as insight into long-term trends, Giving USA data provides insight into how philanthropy has responded in previous times of crisis. Giving USA Foundation and the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy plan to release a special report later this year about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and how US philanthropy has responded.

The most recent severe economic recession within the last 40 years was the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), lasting from 2007 to 2009. During this time, total giving fell by 12% (15.2% when adjusted for inflation). Breaking this down, in 2008 total giving fell by 3.7% (7.2% inflation-adjusted), and in 2009 it fell by a further 8.3% (8% inflation-adjusted). By 2010, however, total giving was climbing again. In the decade since the end of the GFC, total giving has increased by an impressive 33% (inflation-adjusted).

Giving to education also felt the impact of the GFC, falling by 18.5% (21.3% when adjusted for inflation). In 2008, giving to education fell by 15.9% (19.0% inflation-adjusted); it fell again in 2009, by 2.6% (2.3% inflation-adjusted). Like total giving, though, giving to education grew significantly in 2010 – by 20.8% in fact (18.8% inflation-adjusted). Since then, giving to education has trended upwards, showing a total increase of 29.5% (inflation-adjusted) within the last decade.

(Source: Giving USA Foundation, Giving USA 2020)

(Source: Giving USA Foundation, Giving USA 2020)

(Data: Giving USA Foundation, Giving USA 2020)

To drill down further, we can look at National Independent School Facts at a Glance, an annual report released by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) and which feeds into Giving USA 2020. Independent school types recognised by NAIS are day, boarding, day/boarding, co-ed, single-sex, elementary, secondary, and elementary/secondary schools.

NAIS data shows that the average annual giving per student across all schools remained relatively steady throughout the GFC, although it did decrease for boarding schools and, to a lesser extent, day schools. Giving by alumni increased slightly, year on year, through the GFC.

(Data: National Association of Independent Schools,; dollars are not adjusted for inflation; all figures are rounded.)

(Data: National Association of Independent Schools,; dollars are not adjusted for inflation; all figures are rounded.)

While average annual giving per student across all schools remained consistent throughout the GFC, there were some shifts in stakeholder participation worth noting. Parents, grandparents, parents of alumni, and alumni continued to participate less and less in annual giving over this time – a trend that had started before the GFC hit. Trustee participation rates remained strong and constant at 94%, and participation of faculty/staff increased steadily through the GFC. Foundations were participating at or close to their highest levels for that decade.

(Data: National Association of Independent Schools,; all figures are rounded.)

(Data: National Association of Independent Schools,; all figures are rounded.)

(Data: National Association of Independent Schools,; all figures are rounded.)

More recent patterns of giving to independent schools show a marginal drop in median annual giving per student in 2019. However, there was also a marginal increase in alumni giving and giving by parents; this is despite the overall long-term trend for a decline in giving by alumni and non-alumni individuals.

(Data: National Association of Independent Schools,; dollars are not adjusted for inflation.)

(Data: National Association of Independent Schools,; all figures are rounded.)

Rates of participation in annual giving have stabilised over the last three years. Overall, alumni participation has decreased over the last decade, falling to 10% from its GFC high of 16%. However, parents and trustees are actively engaged and participating more now than they were during the last decade.

Our Philanthropic Future

Overall, the trend for declining donor numbers continues, while the size of gifts increase – particularly those at the highest end of the scale: dollars up, donors down. For fundraisers in K12 education organisations, increasing donor retention rates and building meaningful relationships with major donors should be areas of focus.

For education organisations looking to enhance LGBTQ alumnx giving, a study of alumnx philanthropy published in 2019 found alumnx donors were more likely to have experienced an inclusive environment on campus, used LGBTQ resources on campus, and known LGBTQ faculty and staff role models.

Other trends to keep an eye on include the rising popularity of giving circles, particularly among women and people of colour. Giving circles offer a way for groups of individual donors to combine their resources to achieve maximum impact. The Collective Giving Research Group and the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy report that the number of giving circles in the US has tripled in a decade.

In planning our responses to the current uncertainty, trend analysis can help us connect the past to the present and to our future.

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