The GiveWell Blog

The biggest giver: Individuals

This week, Giving USA released their 2007 estimate of U.S. charitable giving.

Its data forms one of our favorite figures, and one of the biggest factors behind our decision to start GiveWell. Taken together, individuals account for 75% of total US giving; that’s 6x as much as all foundations combined. (In fact, it makes more sense to count “Bequests” as individuals, and many “Foundations” are in fact family foundations that have little to no staff, and have a similar lack of access to the information they need.)

When I talk about this chart, many ask: “Sure, individual donors give a lot, but doesn’t most of it go to religious institutions and universities? Is it really going to the types of charities GiveWell focuses on: humanitarian organizations focused on providing for people’s needs?”

A paper released last year by The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University examines precisely that question, using survey data to estimate how much giving is “focused on the needs of the poor” (including an estimate for how much of the money given to “multipurpose organizations,” including churches, has this focus). Note that this report gives a higher total for individual giving than Giving USA, possibly because it is from reported data rather than IRS data, and may therefore include gifts that weren’t taken as deductions. The researchers found that:

When summed, the giving to help meet basic needs and other estimated giving that is focused on the poor come to $77.30 billion, or about 30.6 percent of total estimated household contributions of $252.55.

However you slice it, individual donors are the largest philanthropist in the United States.


  • Andrea on June 30, 2008 at 5:18 pm said:

    You really are starting from the beginning, aren’t you? What is the point of this obvious little summary of data everyone knows about already?

  • Haven’t seen this yet. Thanks for the info! As more online tools become available for individuals to give, this number will dramatically increase. Online giving is definitely the future of charitable giving.

  • liz cole on October 20, 2008 at 1:25 pm said:

    I would like to inform many doners of my thinking is this:I am on disability, however, I have many ideas. I have always been an independent thinker. This has brought me emotional suffering through the years. This is because I have never had the funds to pay my bills ,to choose how I want to utilize my thinking , my ideas .To me the independent thinker who has not found support and or funding, One has to have, because they are financially not allowed to explore their true self.Tis the same as a straving artist. Where is there a place for those of us? I have earned a masters degree , but I want to be free, I want to use this gift I have been given.

  • SRednarb on December 9, 2008 at 4:31 am said:

    Sometimes I feel like I’d rather be on the receiving end of things. But of course, I know it is not easy. But I’m not really surprised with the numbers. With the large populataion of the United States with such a large population, where many individuals have donated in one way or another.

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