Charitable donations in the U.S. last year grew by 3.5 percent to $316.2 billion over 2011, but still fell short of the amount that Americans donated in 2007 when giving peaked before the economic recession.
An annual report released Tuesday by the Giving USA Foundation and the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy said overall giving isn't likely to reach its pre-recession high of $344.5 billion for at least six to seven years.
"On the one hand, it's positive news to be reporting a 3.5 percent increase in giving ... that shows we're seeing continued recovery from the recession," said Steven MacLaughlin, director of the Idea Lab at Blackbaud Inc., a Charleston, S.C., firm that provides consulting services for nonprofits.
But the prediction that it will take possibly until 2020 to return to pre-recession giving levels "is a bit of a concern," Mr. MacLaughlin said.
Last year's total donations of $316.2 billion marks the third consecutive year of growth since charitable giving hit a low point in 2009, said Gregg Carlson, chairman of the Giving USA Foundation, based in Chicago.
"Giving really follows the economy. ... So the slow road has actually accelerated a little bit," Mr. Carlson said.
A bright spot in the report, said Mr. MacLaughlin, is that giving from individuals rose by nearly 4 percent, to $228.9 billion. That may be a sign that donors are paying attention to human services needs in their local communities and that nonprofits providing those services are "focusing on individuals and the things they care about."
"Maybe it's not the number of meals a food bank serves but how those meals are changing hunger in a particular area," Mr. MacLaughlin said.
While high-profile fundraising for victims of Hurricane Sandy generated $236 million in donations in the last quarter of 2012, that amount represented less than 1 percent of all giving for the year, Mr. Carlson noted.
"Episodic giving -- whether it's 9-11, or Haiti or Sandy -- as part of overall giving does not have a big impact. Where it really may have an impact is in particular sectors, such as environmental or international giving, but it really doesn't move the needle overall."
Donations to Hurricane Sandy relief efforts may have replaced donations to international relief efforts last year, Giving USA said.
While international giving by Americans increased only 2.5 percent in 2012, other sectors saw more robust growth, according to the report.
Arts and humanities organizations attracted nearly 8 percent more in donations than in 2011, while donations to groups focused on the environment grew by nearly 7 percent.
"The growth in giving to arts- and environment-related organizations may be an indicator that donors began returning to their personal giving priorities amidst an economy that they perceived as recovering," said Una Osili, director of research at the Lilly School of Philanthropy.
Contributions to religious organizations were flat last year, up less than 1 percent to $101.5 billion even though religious groups received the largest share, or almost one-third, of total giving in 2012.
Gifts to religious organizations "are known to reflect increases in personal income and increases in income have been hard to find," said Mr. Carlson. "Further, there's less attendance at faith-based institutions."
"Ten years ago, religion accounted for over 50 percent of all giving," he said. "Now it's at 32 percent. So you have flat income and wages coupled with poor attendance and less identification" with religious institutions.
Joyce Gannon: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1580.