Giving Tuesday: The Individual's Impact in the Giving Equation

Philanthropy, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is "the practice of giving money and time to help make life better for other people." The altruistic notion of helping others has been part of fundraising efforts for as long as they've existed; people contribute funds to organizations that they support. For some, it's part of attaining a certain status: being included on a donor lineup of A-list philanthropists means being in good company. But that concept might be restricted for high-level donors. The majority of gifts come from middle-class individuals and would suggest that the focus is on the good that the donation will achieve.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy published a study last year that looked at IRS data from 2008. It found:

Households that earn $50,000 to $75,000 give an average of 7.6 percent of their discretionary income to charity, compared with an average of 4.2 percent for people who make $100,000 or more.

Additionally it noted that religious giving plays a large role in the bigger picture of philanthropic activity across the United States.

Religion has a big influence on giving patterns. Regions of the country that are deeply religious are more generous than those that are not. Two of the top nine states--Utah and Idaho--have high numbers of Mormon residents, who have a tradition of tithing at least 10 percent of their income to the church. The remaining states in the top nine are all in the Bible Belt.

When religious giving isn't counted, the geography of giving is very different. Some states in the Northeast jump into the top 10 when secular gifts alone are counted. New York would vault from No. 18 to No. 2, and Pennsylvania would climb from No. 40 to No. 4.

Additionally, patterns of charitable giving lean toward individual giving much more than institutional giving. The Congressional Budget Office reported that in 2009, 75 percent of donations came from individuals.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy also has an interactive map that looks at online giving, with some very interesting data. Patterns of giving from October 2012 to March 2013 show that giving per capita was lowest in Mississippi (at $0.77) and highest in the District of Columbia (at $11.11). However, based on average gift size, Iowa had the lowest amount ($75.74) and West Virginia had the highest ($465.36). Data on total money donated puts California at the top of the list (at $81.9 million) and North Dakota at the bottom (at $464,632).

There is also information on which days and which times of day yield the most giving. In the first quarter of 2013, Thursday was the day with the highest percentage of giving from all days of the week; however, the average gift size was largest on Mondays. Data on giving per hour shows that midnight during the first quarter of 2013 yielded the highest total amount and the highest average gift size, but The Chronicle points out that those large numbers are due to spillover from year-end giving on December 31, 2012.

The one consistent aspect from this data is the power of individuals in giving campaigns. From the contagion of the Obama campaign that prided itself on historic levels of individual donors to the Giving Tuesday movement, which hopes to leverage the excitement of Black Friday and Cyber Monday by adding a philanthropic element to buying frenzy, the focus is on what each person can contribute. And it is on the individual level where creativity can work at its best.

In the past month, The Commonwealth Club hosted very different philanthropists who have found very different ways to give back. Father and son Howard G. Buffett and Howard W. Buffett spoke about their book, 40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World, and their efforts to reduce food insecurity around the world. Adventure philanthropist Erin Michelson talked about her two-year trip around the world, through which she connected with local NGOs and donated her time and expertise. Though each of these approaches has different methodologies of gauging need and meeting it, different focus areas and different means of implementing their goals, the common current is the drive to help others and use their own resources to do so. For charitable giving to work, that's exactly what we need: a constellation of people who are interested in helping different causes in different ways through different mechanisms. Those differences allow the focus to be widespread so that multiple causes have the support systems they need to succeed.

These differences are also a reminder that, as cliché as it sounds, each of us can help in our own way: whether it's volunteering to make cards for senior citizens, serving food at a food bank, donating a certain amount of money to an organization, or collecting food for a food drive, giving does not have to be sacrificial. It can be easily incorporated into our everyday schedules, as busy as they may be. Our ability to make a choice to be charitable need not be a huge undertaking, but when we do it collectively, it will add up -- whether that's to elect the next president, end world hunger or malaria, or eradicate slavery, the choice is ultimately ours.