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Giving rebounds, but not to pre-recession levels

Individual charitable giving in the United States grew almost 4 percent last year according to a new report that shows donations by Americans to nonprofit groups mirror the slow recovery of the larger economy. 

Overall, U.S. donations to bolster the arts, health, religion and other activities totaled $316.2 billion in 2012, a 3.5 percent increase from the $305.5 billion donated in 2011, according to the report, "Giving USA." That was just a 1.5 percent increase when adjusted for inflation. 

Donations are still down about 8 percent from their 2007 peak of $344.5 billion. Giving levels fell sharply during the subsequent recession. 

The annual report is published by the Giving USA Foundation and the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. 

"In 2012, Americans were feeling better - but not great," Gregg Carlson, chair of the foundation, wrote in the study. But he said even the small increase in giving showed the "healing continues, with the prognosis being good." Giving, as a general rule, follows the economy and consumer confidence, he said. 

Individuals in the United States donated $228.9 billion last year, a 3.9 percent increase from $220.3 billion in 2011, the widely followed study found. Individual giving typically makes up almost three-quarters of all giving, and it may still be constrained by widespread unemployment, underemployment and worries about the economy, said Patrick Rooney, an associate dean at Indiana University who worked on the report. 

In contrast, companies and their foundations increased their giving by 12.2 percent to nearly $18.2 billion in 2012, compared with $16.2 billion the year before. 

Giving by charitable foundations, up 4.4 percent, added another $45.7 billion in 2012, and bequeathed gifts, which can vary year-to-year based on estate closings, fell 7 percent to $23.4 billion last year. 

The study analyzed U.S. tax data from the Internal Revenue Service, government economic indicators, and other research. 

If charitable giving continues to grow at recent rates, it will take about another six or seven years to return to pre-recession levels, he said. 

Other findings from the 2012 report include: 

  • Giving to groups for the arts, culture and humanities grew significantly after earlier declines, rising 7.8 percent; 
  • Giving to organizations that focus on the environment and animals rose 6.8 percent; 
  • Gifts to international causes tapered off in 2012 with a modest increase of 2.5 percent after high growth rates in recent years;
  • Donations to religious organizations, which still take in the largest share of all U.S. giving, were nearly unchanged, and
  • Donations to foundations, which vary based on the size of gifts from wealthy U.S. donors, fell 4.6 percent to $30.58 billion.