Charitable contributions by Americans dropped in 2009 for the first time since 1987 as the financial crisis cut into giving.
According to a study by Indiana University's Center on Philanthropy and the Giving USA Foundation released last month, Americans of all stripes, while continuing to give, are contributing at lower numbers. Giving in the U.S. dropped 3.6% last year, to $303.75 billion.
Eileen Heisman, the chief executive of National Philanthropic Trust, said disaster philanthropy, which encourages Americans to text their donations to causes such as Haiti's earthquake relief effort, helped spur some giving.
"People certainly gave to 9/11 and that was well before you could text," Heisman said in a recent telephone interview. "But the definition of instantaneous has changed — instantaneously used to be writing a check, then it was picking up the phone to donate via online banking, now it's texting. It's really accelerated how much people can respond.
"The act of taking a checkbook out is ancient history. Now you don't even have to turn on your computer."
The real challenge for charities, she said, is that most causes are not in your face like a disaster. Text campaigns, Heisman said, are not really feasible for hospitals or universities or more traditional forms of annual giving.
"For disaster giving texting is a quick viral marketing tool that allows lots of gifts in very small amounts, but it's never going to be the backbone of giving," she said.
Individual giving remained flat in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to the study.
"Even in a time of enormous economic upheaval, such as we saw in 2009, Americans continued to be generous to charitable causes," Giving USA Foundation's chairman Edith H. Falk, said in a press release. "While overall giving declined, many donors — including individuals and foundations — made special efforts in 2009 to respond to greater humanitarian needs."
The report revealed that the types of charitable recipients that saw declines in giving tended to be those that are more likely to receive gifts through capital campaigns, contributions to endowments and donations of art and property. These included education, grant-making foundations, arts and culture organizations and public-society benefit organizations, which include donor-advised funds such as the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund or the Schwab Charitable Fund, and Jewish endowments.
Meanwhile, giving to human services increased 2.3%, to $27.08 billion, giving for health rose 3.8%, to $22.46 billion and giving to international aid (which includes relief, development and public policy activities) jumped an estimated 6.2%, to $8.89 billion, boosted by giving to Haiti's earthquake relief efforts.
Heisman said she is impressed with the generosity of Americans, even during these hard times.
"People are willing to give over $300 billion — or about 2% of the [gross domestic product] — despite the fact that economy had a huge downturn," she said.
"While some assets and foundations were down 44%, you still have private American philanthropy keeping at a generous pace. People were out of jobs and needing services, and Americans rose to the occasion. Americans are not spending as much in the consumer marketplace, but charitable giving is alive and well."