The Generosity Commission: Reimagining and Reigniting America’s Spirit of Generosity

Even before the pandemic and paradigm shifts of 2020, Americans’ traditions of generosity had been evolving in response to a host of changes across society—from how we work, learn, worship, participate, and communicate.

Over the last decade, we have seen declines in the number of people donating to charity or volunteering, changes in the demographics of participation, and growing questions about which actions and which communities get counted or left out in traditional measures of giving and volunteering.

In response to the challenges facing generosity in America, leadership from The Giving Institute and Giving USA Foundation began to investigate the idea of a commission that could address these concerns. Out of this exploratory effort, the Generosity Commission was born.

The Generosity Commission is a nonpartisan, cross-sector, broadly diverse group designed to bring together a breadth of stakeholders, voices, and expertise to explore profound questions that will shape the future of giving, volunteering, and the many forms of civic engagement in America.

While there are many contributing factors, these are complex issues. There is not just one cause, not only one solution, not simply one organization, entity, or sector that can reverse these trends.

To rebuild better, we believe that we must collectively reimagine generosity. From definitions, data collection, and research to thinking about what is possible, to how we engage with our communities and our society, to who is leading the work, making decisions, and participating, to funding models, and the work of the sector itself – we must imagine, think, and operate differently.

The Challenges

  • 20 million fewer American households gave to charity from 2000-2016, a decline of 13%.i
  • High-income donors give more frequently and in larger amounts. In 2012, the top 1% of donors gave 43.5% of all individual donations. In 1960, the top 1% of donors gave 18.9% of all donations.ii
  • Volunteerism hit a fifteen-year low in 2015. The national volunteer rate for all Americans declined from 27 percent in 2005 to 23.5 percent in 2015.iii
  • Young people are not participating in traditionally measured giving and volunteering at the same level and rates as previous generations. From a high in 2003, volunteering by the Millennial generation in 2015 declined by 4%. Giving levels remain near lows seen in 2009 – post Great Recession.iv

The Opportunities

If the last year showed us again how vital our tradition of generosity is, the past decade shows us that the future of generosity in America is not guaranteed. It is possible to imagine an America without the benefits of broadly shared expressions of generosity that strengthen our communities and knit us together as a people.

At the same time, we can imagine and pursue a renewed spirit of giving, volunteering, and civic engagement that:

  • Takes new forms and embraces new ideas, from crowdfunding to impact investing, direct giving, and social entrepreneurship.
  • Recognizes the many ways people engage in their communities from informal and formal volunteering to movement building, activism, and advocacy.
  • Engages new generations and mobilizes people from all backgrounds in support of the myriad of causes that capture our hearts, minds, and spirit.
  • Brings people together, building commonality and connection, strengthening communities at a time of division.

iChanges to the Giving Landscape, IUPUI 2019
iiDuquette, Nicolas, J: The Evolving Distribution of Giving in the United States, Sept. 11, 2020
iiiGrimm, Robert T., Jr., and Dietz, Nathan. 2018 “Where Are America’s Volunteers? A Look at America’s Widespread Decline in Volunteering in Cities and States.” Research Brief: Do Good Institute, University of Maryland.
ivDietz, Nathan, and Grimm, Robert T., Jr. 2019. “Shifting Milestones, Fewer Donors and Volunteers: 21st Century Life for Young Adults and the Impact on Charitable Behaviors,” Research Brief: Do Good Institute, University of Maryland.
vNai, Narayanan, Hernandez, Savani: 2018

At a time when citizen trust is in decline, we cannot help but note that the health of our society and our democracy depends on citizen engagement, giving, and volunteering. Each contributes to our unique form of self-governance in which the public, private, and charitable sectors each have a vital role to play. The Generosity Commission will delve deep into the research to understand how social, cultural, and economic factors may affect these forms of civic participation. And it will share ideas for invigorating the spirit of generosity that is so much a part of American civic life. Our democracy depends on it.

Jane Wales
Chair, Generosity Commission
Vice President, The Aspen Institute