Rich Americans’ philanthropy dropped in 2009, but not for the arts, study finds

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“Let me tell you about the very rich,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in 1926. “They are different from you and me.”

The facts support him still, judging by a study of rich folks’ charitable habits released Tuesday. One of the things that most differentiates them from the rest of us, it reveals, is that they give to the arts.

In their “Study of High Net Worth Philanthropy,” Bank of America and Merrill Lynch found that households with incomes of $200,000 or more, or net worths of at least $1 million (not counting a primary home’s value) devoted 7.5 cents out of their charitable dollar to the arts during 2009, compared to a penny for the population at large.

Nearly three out of four wealthy households gave to the arts; for the general population it was just over one in thirteen.


The disparities between the wealthy and the rank and file were considerably greater for the arts than for any of the other nine categories covered by the study, which was conducted by Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropy and reported earlier Tuesday by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. The second biggest difference was in religious giving. That’s where 63 cents out of each charitable dollar went for the general U.S. population, nearly five times greater than the 13-cent share for religion among rich people.

Looking at the four-year arc of the study, the arts feasted on their richest patrons’ donations in 2005, when the average wealthy household gave $17,498 inflation-adjusted dollars; arts groups had to get by on table scraps in 2007, when average giving fell to $4,958, but they enjoyed a more decent meal in 2009, thanks to an 11.6% increase, to $5,531.

Of the ten categories, the arts finished fifth in 2009, up from seventh in 2007. The higher giving priorities for the wealthy in 2009 were education (a $12,759 average household gift), religious charities, youth and family services and “other.” Trailing arts donations were gifts to “combination” charities such as the United Way, international giving, and donations for health, environment/animal care and basic needs.

Apparently, the rich are like you and me in at least one way: When the economy goes bad, they tend to feel less generous. The wealthy gave 9% of their income to charity in 2009, the study showed, down from 11% in 2007. With incomes in decline, that translated to a 35% drop in dollars donated by the wealthy, from an average of $83,000 per household to $54,000. Much of the charitable load was carried by a relatively small group of especially generous rich people -– only 19% of wealthy households gave $50,000 or more, and only 2.5% gave $500,000 or more. The Scrooge factor -– those who give nothing -– was 1.8% among the rich, 35% in the general population.

Researchers randomly sent 12-page questionnaires to 20,000 households in neighborhoods where net assets average at least $3 million; the results were culled from 801 responses; the average worth of the responding households was $10.7 million. Figures quoted for the general population were from a separate 2007 study by the Center on Philanthropy. -- Mike Boehm

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