What are the risks to the autonomy of the independent nonprofit sector—not to mention our democracy—when a growing amount of philanthropic power is held in fewer hands?

A new Institute for Policy Studies report, Gilded Giving 2018: Top-Heavy Philanthropy and Its Risks to the Independent Sector, takes a close look at the impact of increasing economic inequality on the philanthropic sector.

Co-authored by Chuck Collins, Josh Hoxie, and Helen Flannery of the Institute for Policy Studies, the report finds that our charitable sector is currently experiencing a transition from broad-based support across a wide range of donors to top-heavy philanthropy increasingly dominated by a small number of very wealthy individuals and foundations.

As we reported in 2016, growing inequity in charitable giving continues to hold risks not only for nonprofits themselves, but also for the nation. This is truer now than ever, as ever-greater proportions of charitable dollars technically qualifying as tax-deductible donations are diverted into wealth-warehousing vehicles such as private foundations and donor-advised funds, and away from direct nonprofits serving immediate needs.

This updated edition of Gilded Giving focuses on the impact of increasing financial inequality on the philanthropic sector, highlights trends that have either arisen or increased in intensity since the initial publication of our report, puts forward several possible implications of these changes, and suggests some solutions.

Key Findings

  • Charitable contributions from donors at the top of the income and wealth ladder have increased significantly over the past decade. In the early 2000s, households earning $200,000 or more made up only 30 percent of all charitable deductions. But by 2017, this group accounted for 52 percent. And the percent of charitable deductions from households making over one million dollars grew from 12 percent in 1995 to 30 percent in 2015.
  • There has been a marked increase in mega-gifting. In 2012, the threshold for mega-gifts was $50 million or more; gifts of that size amounted to $1.2 billion and accounted for just one-half of one percent of all individual giving in the United States that year. In 2017, just five years later, the threshold for mega-gifts jumped to $300 million or more; gifts of that size totaled $4.1 billion and accounted for about one and a half percent of all individual giving that year.
  • In the past two decades, the number of households that give to charity has declined significantly. From 2000 to 2014, the proportion of households giving to charity dropped from 66 percent to 55 percent.
  • The number of donors giving at typical donation levels has been steadily declining. Low-dollar and mid-level donors have declined by about two percent each year for more than fifteen years. These donors traditionally have made up the vast majority of donor files and solicitation lists for most national nonprofits since their inception.
  • The number and size of private grant-making foundations and donor-advised funds have shown dramatic growth. The funds held in private foundations grew 62 percent between 2005 and 2015; the number of private foundations chartered in the United States grew 21 percent over that same period.
  • Donor-Advised Funds (DAFs) are on the rise. Donations to donor-advised funds increased from just under $14 billion in 2012 to $23 billion in 2016—growth of 66 percent over five years. DAFs, a giving vehicle used primarily by the wealthy, are currently the largest and fastest-growing recipients of charitable giving in the United States.

Implications

Our charitable sector is currently experiencing a transition from broad-based support across a wide range of donors to top-heavy philanthropy increasingly dominated by a small number of very wealthy individuals and foundations. This has significant implications for the practice of fundraising, the role of the independent nonprofit sector, and the health of our larger democratic civil society.

  • Risks to charitable independent sector organizations include increased volatility and unpredictability in funding, making it more difficult to budget and forecast income into the future; an increased need to shift toward major donor cultivation; and an increased bias toward funding heavily major-donor-directed boutique organizations and projects. The increasing power of a small number of donors also greatly increases the potential for mission distortion.
  • Risks to the public include an increasingly unaccountable and undemocratic philanthropic sector; the rise of tax avoidance philanthropy; the warehousing of wealth in the face of urgent needs; self-dealing philanthropy; and the increasing use of philanthropy as an extension of power and privilege protection.

Recommendations

This report calls for an urgent reform of the philanthropic sector to encourage broader giving, protect the health of the independent sector, discourage the warehousing of wealth in private foundations and donor-advised funds, and increase accountability to protect the public interest and the integrity of our tax system.

Changes in the rules governing philanthropy should include:

  • Increasing the minimum annual distribution payout for foundations.
  • Excluding foundation overhead from the payout percentage.
  • Linking the excise tax on foundations to payout distribution amounts.
  • Reforming the rules governing donor-advised funds to require distribution of DAF donations within three years.
  • Banning gifts from private foundations to DAFs and vice-versa.
  • Setting a lifetime cap on tax-deductible charitable giving.
  • Establishing a universal charitable deduction to encourage giving by low and middle-income givers.

To fully address the risks of top-heavy philanthropy, however, policymakers will need to not only reform the rules of charitable giving, but also establish policies to reduce, over time, concentrations of wealth and power in our society at large. This would include restoring steeply progressive income and wealth taxation, and closing loopholes.

Read the full report here.

Chuck Collins directs the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies, where Josh Hoxie directs the Project on Opportunity and Taxation, and where Helen Flannery is an associate fellow.