With over one million charitable organizations in the U.S., Americans have a wide range of possibilities when it comes to donating some of their income for the greater good. How many Americans do so?
In a recent survey, YouGov asked Americans about their involvement with charitable organizations. Two-thirds of Americans (69%) say they ever donate money to a charitable cause or organization in their lifetime, including 72% of Democrats and 75% of Republicans. Half of U.S. adults under 30 say they have donated money to charitable causes in their lifetime, with the percentages increasing as a function of age — and the accumulation of opportunities to give: 60% of Americans between the ages of 30 and 44, 73% of Americans between 45 and 64, and 85% of Americans 65 or older say they have donated to charities at some point in their lives.
About half of Americans (54%) say they have donated in the past year. As for the amounts this group has donated in the past year, one-third (37%) say they have donated less than $200. About one in 10 Americans who have donated in the past year say they have donated $1,000 or more in that time, with people 65 or older more likely (22%) to donate these larger amounts, compared to members of each of the rest of the major age groups who have donated in the past year.
Which are the most popular kinds of charities among Americans?
Overall, organizations that focus on human services or are religious appear to have gotten donations from the highest percentages of Americans who say they ever donate to charities, with one-third saying they donated to human-services causes, and one-quarter saying they donated to religious organizations. Human services is the most listed type of charity among most major age groups polled, with the exception of adults 65 or older. Donations to religious organizations seem to vary somewhat by age: While 17% of American adults under 45 say they have donated to religious organizations in the past year, 33% of those who are 45 and older say the same.
For Americans who say they have ever donated to charities, the two most listed reasons for donating among those offered in the poll are belief in the cause (48%) and belief that one should give to charity (31%). Older Americans who donate to charities are slightly more likely than younger givers to say that donating is part of their religious beliefs: 19% for Americans between 45 and 64, and 25% for Americans 65 and older, compared to 10% for those under 30 and 7% for those between 30 and 44.
With so many charitable organizations in the U.S., how do Americans choose which charities to give to? Nearly all Americans (96%) who say they have ever donated to charity say knowing their funds will be used in the way that will do the most good possible is somewhat or very important. This is in line with a philosophy called “effective altruism,” whose aim is to use evidence and reasoning to do the most good possible with a given amount of resources. While only 16% of Americans say they are familiar with the term, almost half of Americans who have ever donated to charity say knowing their funds will be used in a way that will do the most good possible is the most important factor to them when choosing a charity, among five options provided.
Knowing their funds will be used in the most effective way (95%) and knowing exactly what their funds will be used for (90%) are also reasons listed as somewhat or very important by most Americans who say they have ever donated to charity, but only about one in five list each of these as the most important.
Money is not the only thing that charitable organizations need from the public. For some groups, especially ones that are understaffed, donations of time might be just as valuable as donations of money. Americans are five times more likely to say they mostly donate money to charities than to say they mostly donate their time, while 17% say they donate time and money equally. The proportion of people who say they mostly donate time decreases with age: While 16% of American adults under 30 and 15% of Americans between 30 and 44 say they mostly donate their time, only 4% of Americans 45 and older say the same.
Whether Americans choose to donate their time or money to charitable organizations could also be influenced by their opinions on who has the greatest responsibility for helping people who are struggling. People who say they have ever donated to charity and people who say they have never donated to charity are equally likely to say the government has the greatest responsibility for helping those in need (38% each). But more people who have ever donated to charity say they think private charities have the greatest responsibility (38%) than people who say they have never donated to charity (22%); the latter group is more likely to say "neither" and to say they are unsure.
Most Democrats (58%) say the government has the greatest responsibility for helping people who are struggling, while only 32% of Independents and 22% of Republicans agree. Age may also play a role in apportioning responsibility for helping people in need. Almost half of American adults under 30 say the government has the greatest responsibility, but the share of people who agree is smaller for the other major age groups: 40% of Americans between 30 and 44, 33% of those ages 45 to 64, and 36% of those who are 65 and older.
Should billionaires donate most of their wealth to charities? Four in 10 Americans say they should, while they are living, while one in 10 say they should, but after they die. Half of Democrats, one-third of Independents, and one-quarter of Republicans say billionaires should donate most of their wealth while they are living. Americans 45 and older are more likely (28%) than younger adults (17%) to say billionaires should not donate a majority of their wealth to charity.
YouGov also conducted an experiment to see how much the share that Americans say they would donate if they themselves had large sums of money they could do anything with would depend on just how large this hypothetical sum of money was. Half of respondents were asked what percentage of $1 billion they would donate to charity and the other half were asked what percentage of $1 million they would donate to charity. The experiment found that even among large sums of money, size matters in charitable intent: One-third of Americans say they would donate 50% or more out of $1 billion if given the chance, while half as many (17%) say they would donate at least half of $1 million.
— Taylor Orth and Carl Bialik contributed to this article.
This poll was conducted on July 21 - 23 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Explore more on the methodology and data for this YouGov poll.
Image: Getty (Sean Gladwell)