When the coronavirus prompted states to order residents to stay at home in March, unemployment surged around the country as huge parts of the economy slowed or stopped. Soon after, there were calls for philanthropists, charitably inclined people and even occasional donors to accelerate any giving they were planning to do.
They stepped up, it turns out, giving more and giving faster then they typically do.
The needs were urgent. Virus-related charities and social service agencies, like food banks, were thrust into an immediate role whose size and scope they were not prepared for. At the same time, arts organizations and other nonprofit groups that depend on sales of tickets to their shows and productions suddenly had no audience.
To encourage donations, the CARES Act expanded the amount of cash contributions that could be taken as a tax deduction. But the focus of the call to action was firmly on foundations and donor-advised funds, which have huge pools of money that can go only to charity.
Now three months after the initial outbreak, two reports show that Americans gave at a rate and a level that eclipsed donations during the 2008 recession and after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
According a report released on Friday from Fidelity Charitable, which has become the largest grant maker in the country by managing thousands of individual donor-advised funds, those donors have given $3.4 billion nationwide since the start of the year, up at least 28 percent from a year earlier.
Grants to food banks and other food assistance programs were up 667 percent nationally, including more than 800 percent in the Mid-Atlantic. At the same time, donors continued to give to their local and other regular charities, according to the report, which tallied 750,000 transactions to more than 100,000 charities.
“Despite the economic environment, all the uncertainty at a personal level, people looked outside of themselves and gave to charity,” said Pamela Norley president of Fidelity Charitable.
Debra Mailman, who has spent the two years since she retired as an executive at Microsoft volunteering in disaster zones, initially slowed her giving, shocked by the sudden drop in value in the investments in her donor-advised fund.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, I did the same thing everyone did: I looked at the stock market and said, ‘Oh, my God,’” she said. “Then I held my nose and said, ‘Forget that — the money isn’t mine anymore. It will do more work out there.’”