Arts and culture was fastest-growing philanthropic cause in 2012

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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In terms of donations, arts and culture was Americans’ fastest-growing charitable cause in 2012, rising an estimated 7.8% to $14.44 billion, according to a leading annual research report on charitable giving.

Donations to education rose second-fastest, with a 7% gain, according to the latest edition of “Giving USA,” issued Tuesday by the Chicago-based Giving Institute and its research partner, the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University.

Overall charitable giving totaled $316.2 billion, up 3.5% from 2011, the report said. The “modest overall gains ... mirrored the nation’s recent economic trends,” it noted.


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Arts and culture’s share of all giving was 5% --– the second-smallest share among eight major charitable sectors identified in the report. A category lumping the environment and animal welfare received 3% of Americans’ largess.

Religion was easily the biggest recipient, with 32%, but the report noted that its share has been gradually dwindling because of “declining attendance and religious affiliation among Americans.” Education and human services each attracted 13% of Americans’ total giving, foundations received a 10% share, and health organizations 9%.

Previous Giving USA reports had noted that donations to arts and culture sank 8.2% during the two-year recession of 2008 and 2009. The $14.44 billion given in 2012 vaulted the sector back above the pre-recession peak of $13.7 billion in 2007.

But before anyone breaks out the champagne, it should be noted that because of inflation, arts donors would have had to ante up $15.17 billion in 2012 -- 5.1% more than they actually gave -- to match the purchasing power they’d provided in 2007.

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The year’s overall charitable giving remained 8.9% below the pre-recession peak, adjusting for inflation. At the present rate of recovery, which the report characterized as “a slow uphill climb,” the Indiana University researchers estimated that it will take six or seven more years for giving to regain the pre-recession peak.

The report sounded one potentially discordant note for advocates who’ve labored mightily to portray the arts as a basic and fundamental nutrient for economic growth and educational achievement, rather than mere icing on society’s cake.

Una Osili, director of research at the Lilly Family School, noted that during the recession and in the early years of recovery, many donors had focused their giving on “what they viewed as essential services to help others in need.” The rapid increase for arts and culture in 2012, she said, may suggest that some supporters regard the arts as a “personal ... priority” rather than an “essential,” and are feeling more free to indulge it now that they think the economy has improved.

The estimates in “Giving USA” were based on information from a variety of sources, including the Internal Revenue Service, the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis and independent studies of charitable giving by several nonprofit research groups.


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