The Case for the Generosity Commission: Understanding the Past and the Present to Ignite America’s Spirit of Generosity

Though philanthropy has always been a fundamental part of American culture, in the past twenty years, there has been a worrying decline in traditional giving and volunteering. In response, leadership from The Giving Institute and Giving USA Foundation formed a task force in 2016 to determine if this trend warranted a more formal assessment. From this effort, it was determined that a working group of experts from across the philanthropic spectrum should be formed to explore the issues more deeply.

That work has resulted in the establishment of the Generosity Commission, which will ask deep questions about the state of giving in the United States and explore the complex array of economic, demographic, and technological causes behind these trends. Preliminary research has revealed the need for the Generosity Commission to further investigate the state of generosity in America and use that knowledge to make concrete recommendations with the goal of encouraging broader participation in giving and volunteering.

To guide subsequent research and policy recommendations, the Generosity Commission hired a panel of expert researchers in mid-2018 to investigate over 150 existing studies, articles and databases. “As we began the work of the Generosity Commission, we wanted to learn from the research that had already been done on key trends and factors affecting donor behavior,” said Matt Nash, Executive Director of the Generosity Commission Working Committee. The group examined at least sixteen separate factors including economic and demographic shifts, political polarization, religious participation, and emerging technologies, and how those factors interact to produce current giving trends.

Panel Researchers

Dr. Lucy Bernholz, Senior Research Scholar at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society

Dr. Una Osili, the Associate Dean for Research and International Programs at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI

Dr. Elizabeth T. Boris, an Institute Fellow, Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.


The panel presented their findings in October 2018, revealing that large economic and demographic shifts were causing a significant decrease in the number of donors in America. “According to the landmark Philanthropy Panel Study begun in 2001, there are 20 million more non-donor households in the United States since 2000. Both the Baby Boomer and Millennial generations have been slow to recover economically since the Great Recession, resulting in a 13% decline in giving by Millennials between 2001 and 2015,” said Dr. Osili.



“This decline in giving among Millennials can also be attributed to their decreased participation in religion, which means less giving in that sector. Additionally, the Baby Boomer generation is retiring, and Millennials are getting married later, buying homes later, and giving less,” Una continued.


In addition to these demographic and economic trends, current research shows that charitable giving may be affected by tax reform, lack of technology, and limited organizational capacity. “Fewer Americans are giving to, and volunteering with charities. Tax reform, especially a higher standard deduction, de-incentivizes smaller-scale donations. At the same time, limited organizational capacity within many non-profits makes it difficult for them to take advantage of new fundraising technologies. Many also lack organizational capacity to keep current volunteers and donors engaged or identify new sources of giving,” explained Dr. Boris.

The group also considered whether donors are embracing new replacement behaviors, including social media giving, cause marketing, and ethical consumption as they move away from traditional models of giving. “There is a lot of work left to be done in this area, but it does not appear that these new channels are growing fast enough to make up for the loss of traditional charitable donors. While new activities such as crowdfunding may increase giving to non-profits, the findings with regard to political shifts were mixed, and we still need to examine ideas like impact investing and social enterprise,” said Dr. Bernholz. There may also be replacement behaviors that have not yet been identified in research, but have the potential to significantly impact generosity in the future.

Going forward, the Generosity Commission will delve more deeply into specific socio-demographic trends and pinpoint whether there are certain areas of great decline, or whether the trends identified in initial research are truly as broad-based as they appear. Additionally, the Commission will look at the implications of these trends on non-profit organizations, and determine whether their effects are felt more strongly in certain sectors than others.

Current researchers and new stakeholders will work together to examine one of the deepest questions that can be asked about philanthropy: What drives people to be generous? While giving may currently be in decline, there is enormous potential to create a charitable future that is more expansive, more diverse, and more inclusive than ever before. Understanding what mattered to donors in the past and how that is changing and why will allow the Generosity Commission to envision new ways to engage a wider variety of people in the great tradition that is giving in America.

We hope that the subsequent work of the Generosity Commission will begin a new national conversation about philanthropy and take the next steps toward creating a more informed public, empowered by new ideas and possibilities around generosity. If you would like to join us in this next phase of research and engagement, please contact us at [email protected].