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New Research Reveals Unique Insights Into Donors' Motivations for Giving and Why They Stop
Bank of America

November, 2010

Charitable giving by high net worth households to nonprofit organizations accounts for about two-thirds of all individual giving and about half of all charitable giving in the U.S.1

Through an ongoing research partnership with the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, which began in 2006, the 2010 Bank of America Merrill Lynch Study of High Net Worth Philanthropy reveals significant shifts as well as consistent trends in the attitudes and giving behaviors of wealthy donors, including which nonprofit sectors they support, how they direct their largest gifts, what motivates them to give and to discontinue support for a nonprofit organization, where and how often they volunteer, and who they turn to for advice about philanthropy. The latest study also examines new areas of research, including how charitable decisions are made within households, investment risk tolerance as it pertains to donors' philanthropic assets, and how wealthy individuals respond to disaster relief.

This biennial study has become a significant resource for understanding the motives and methods of giving among wealthy Americans and is used to inform the practices of nonprofit organizations and to foster peer learning among donors themselves. The study also provides key insights for those who advise the wealthy on their charitable giving strategies.

This latest study follows much of the same methodology as the 2006 and 2008 studies in order to identify key trends and provide deeper insights. It reflects the responses of more than 800 households randomly surveyed in affluent neighborhoods across the U.S. Households in the sample have an income of greater than $200,000 and/or a net worth of at least $1,000,000, excluding the value of their primary residence. The average wealth of respondents was more than $10 million, and half of all respondents had a net worth between $3 million and $20 million.

Click here to access the full 75-page 2010 study and to view a panel discussion about some of its compelling findings.

Strong Commitment to Nonprofits, Though Giving Levels Decline

According to the study, high net worth households continued to support charitable organizations at levels that were remarkably consistent with those seen in 2005 and 2007, with 98 percent of wealthy households donating to charitable causes in 2009. High net worth households also reported a continued strong commitment to supporting the same organizations or causes year after year (66 percent). Although 35 percent stopped giving to at least one organization in 2009, this was consistent with 2007 results - an indication that donors were no less committed to the organizations they supported during the recent recession than they were before it began. Giving as a percentage of income also remained somewhat steady in 2009 compared to the previous study, with wealthy donors contributing just over 9 percent of their income to charitable causes last year, compared to approximately 11 percent in 2007.

"Wealthy individuals and families continue to be a driving force behind charitable giving in this country, supporting a wide array of organizations and issues," said Gillian Howell, national private philanthropy executive at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. "It was encouraging that these donors remained committed to supporting the causes and communities they feel passionate about, many of which were facing new challenges and complexities brought on by the recent recession."

While commitment to continuing support for nonprofits remained high, wealthy households appear to be making trade-offs in the dollar amounts that they give to charity, with the overall average gift amounts in this study decreasing by 35 percent from 2007, after adjusting for inflation. Several sectors did see increases between 4 and 21 percent in average amounts given by wealthy donors, including the arts, environment/animal care and international giving.

"Charitable giving follows the overall economy," said Una Osili, Ph.D., director of research for the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. "When economic conditions improve, charitable giving improves as well."

Although average giving amounts to health and education declined in 2009, they remain among the top nonprofit sectors supported by wealthy households. Consistent with the two previous studies, between 70 and 85 percent of high net worth households supported health, religion, the arts, education and basic needs. The percentage of households that gave to basic human needs, such as food and shelter, increased from 75 percent in 2005 to 85 percent in 2009.

More than 55 percent of high net worth households gave their largest gift in 2009 to fund general operations at nonprofit organizations. Significantly fewer households made their largest gift to support the growth of an organization (24 percent), for capital campaigns (14 percent) and for the long-term needs of the organization (11 percent) compared to 2007.

"As the economy recovers and donors begin to look beyond short-term needs, nonprofit organizations will need to consider adjusting their messaging to better capture the critical support needed for sustainability and growth," said Claire Costello, national foundation executive at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. "Their challenge will be striking a balance between successfully engaging donors around both long- and short-term needs."

Volunteerism: Human Capital

Volunteering remains a significant part of the philanthropic efforts of wealthy individuals. Since 2007, high net worth households have been giving more of their time and talent to the organizations and causes they value. Nearly 79 percent of high net worth individuals volunteered in 2009, and the percentage who volunteered more than 200 hours a year rose significantly, from 27 percent in 2007 to 39 percent in 2009. The study also found that the more high net worth individuals volunteered, the more they gave. For example, non-volunteers donated $46,414 on average in 2009, while those who volunteered more than 200 hours donated $75,662 to charity last year.

"This rise in volunteerism may be due to a combination of factors, including a tendency among donors to compensate for financial constraints during a time of recession by committing more of their time, skills and other human capital. Another factor may be that baby boomers have begun to retire or scale back on their working hours, leaving more time for volunteer efforts," said Howell. "This year's study demonstrates that presenting donors and their families with meaningful and year-round volunteer opportunities can help nonprofits build stronger connections to their organization, deepen relationships with supporters and potentially establish longer-term commitments."

Motivations of Wealthy Donors:Why They Give and Why They Stop

When asked about their charitable behavior, high net worth households reported that their top motivations for giving were:


  • Being moved by how their gift can make a difference (72 percent).
  • Feeling financially secure (71 percent).
  • Giving to an organization that will use their donation efficiently (71 percent).
  • Supporting the same causes or organizations annually (66 percent).

"These top responses around impact, efficiency and financial security indicate that during these difficult financial times, when community needs are more acute, donors are particularly concerned about whether their contributions are being used effectively. They want to invest their charitable assets wisely in order to get the most bang for their philanthropic buck," said Costello.

Why Wealthy Donors Stopped Giving

In 2009, 35 percent of households stopped giving to at least one organization, and 27 percent stopped giving to at least two organizations that they previously supported. The top four reasons cited for why donors stopped giving to a particular charity included:


  • Too frequent solicitation/organization asked for inappropriate amount (59 percent).
  • Decided to support other causes (34 percent).
  • Household circumstances changed (e.g., financial, relocation, employment) (29 percent).
  • Organization changed leadership or activities (29 percent).

"Nonprofit organizations may have asked for too much at a time when donors were more constrained due to the downturn. The message for nonprofits is that they should be aware of donors' circumstances. Even if donors haven't been as affected by the downturn, increased economic and financial uncertainty may be leading them to allocate their charitable dollars differently," said Osili.

Additional Giving Influences

Tax Considerations

In a shift from the previous studies, wealthy households reported being more sensitive to the effect of tax policy on their giving. About two-thirds (67 percent) of wealthy households would somewhat or dramatically decrease their charitable contributions if they received zero income tax deductions for their donations; 47 percent responded this way in 2007. If the estate tax were repealed, 43 percent of wealthy households would somewhat or dramatically increase the amount they leave to charity in an estate plan, compared to 36 percent in 2007.

Disaster Relief

An area in which wealthy households do not make trade-offs is when giving to disaster relief, such as the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, Hurricane Katrina, tsunamis, or other events. This new area of research found that the majority of wealthy households (83 percent) sometimes or usually make a donation in response to disasters. When households made a donation, more than 92 percent gave to disaster relief in addition to their regular charitable giving.

Attracting and Retaining Donors

A combined 95 percent of wealthy households have some or a great deal of confidence in nonprofit organizations' ability to solve societal or global problems. In a continuing trend from the previous study, donors also have high expectations of charitable organizations, listing the following factors among those most important when determining which to support:


  • Demonstrate sound business and operational practices (87 percent).
  • Acknowledge contributions, including sending receipts (85 percent).
  • Spend an appropriate amount on overhead (80 percent).
  • Do not distribute personal information (80 percent).

Household Decision-Making and Transmission of Philanthropic Values

For the first time, this study examined how charitable decisions within high net worth households are made. The findings suggest that among wealthy couples who make charitable donations (those who are married and/or living with a partner), both giving partners are likely to be involved in decision-making:


  • 41 percent confer with their partner or spouse and then make joint decisions about charitable giving.
  • 26 percent confer but then usually one person ultimately makes the charitable giving decisions for the household.
  • 16 percent reported that giving decisions were made by a single decision maker without conferring with anyone else.
  • 15 percent of couples report that each partner typically makes independent decisions about how to allocate their giving.

Raising Philanthropic Children

The latest study once again looked at the transmission of philanthropic values to children or other younger relatives. In this study, the children of wealthy households are generally adults with an average age of 31. The vast majority (85 percent) of households instruct their children and/or younger relatives about philanthropy. Respondents also noted that younger individuals learn about the value of giving from religious institutions (45 percent), nonprofits (21 percent) and through their own personal efforts (19 percent).

Wealthy households reported a variety of family traditions as a part of their annual charitable giving. In fact, more than 70 percent of wealthy families have family traditions in which they involve their children and/or younger relatives in charitable giving, such as making gifts to honor the memory of an individual (35 percent), making gifts to organizations they are involved with (34 percent), having family discussions about giving throughout the year (27 percent), volunteering as a family (18 percent) and making family decisions about charitable giving during the holidays (10 percent).

Charitable Vehicles, Investing and Advisors

More than 16 percent of wealthy households gave to giving vehicles such as private foundations, donor-advised funds and charitable trusts in 2009, and the average giving amount to these vehicles increased by 21 percent, from $62,680 in 2007 to $75,867 in 2009.

In another new area of research, the latest study examined high net worth households' levels of risk tolerance among both their personal and philanthropic investments (e.g., private foundations, donor-advised funds and charitable trusts). The results show that, while 35 percent of wealthy households cited a willingness to tolerate above-average or substantial risk in their personal investments, only 23 percent reported these high levels of risk tolerance when it comes to their philanthropic investments. Furthermore, while only 10 percent of households reported they were not willing to take any risk in their personal investing, one quarter (26 percent) cite being completely risk averse with their philanthropic investments.

"These findings indicate that donors understand that their philanthropic assets are in fact not their own, but rather are to be used for the common good. In other words, we believe they take less risk with these assets than they do with their personal investments because they understand that their philanthropic capital ought to be invested with appropriate levels of risk given that it is intended for public benefit," said Costello.

Finally, this year's study continued to examine trends in charitable advice sought by wealthy donors. Consistent with trends observed between the 2006 and 2008 studies, the 2010 study witnessed notable increases in donors' use of accountants (68 percent) and financial/wealth advisors (39 percent) to help them make charitable giving decisions. High net worth households also consulted with nonprofit personnel (24 percent) in their charitable decisions around philanthropic mission definition and creation. More than 90 percent of wealthy households initiated the discussions with their advisor, and 85 percent were satisfied with the advice given.

1 Analysis by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University of charitable giving using data from the Survey of Consumer Finances (2004), IRS tax deductions (2004), and Giving USA Foundation (2004) information for households with income of $200,000 or more. Latest years available.

The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University

The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University is a leading academic center dedicated to increasing the understanding of philanthropy and improving its practice worldwide through research, teaching, training and public affairs programs in philanthropy, fundraising, and management of nonprofit organizations. A part of the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, the Center operates programs on the IUPUI and IU Bloomington campuses. For more information, visit

Institutional Investment and Philanthropic Solutions

Bank of America Merrill Lynch's Institutional Investments and Philanthropic Solutions (II&PS) business is a specialized practice within the Global Wealth and Investment Management (GWIM) division. The practice serves more than 22,000 nonprofit organizations, philanthropic families and individuals through the objective delivery of integrated institutional investment, philanthropic and advisory solutions.

Bank of America

Bank of America is one of the world's largest financial institutions, serving individual consumers, small- and middle-market businesses and large corporations with a full range of banking, investing, asset management and other financial and risk management products and services. The company provides unmatched convenience in the United States, serving approximately 57 million consumer and small business relationships with approximately 5,900 retail banking offices and approximately 18,000 ATMs and award-winning online banking with 29 million active users. Bank of America is among the world's leading wealth management companies and is a global leader in corporate and investment banking and trading across a broad range of asset classes, serving corporations, governments, institutions and individuals around the world. Bank of America offers industry-leading support to approximately 4 million small business owners through a suite of innovative, easy-to-use online products and services. The company serves clients through operations in more than 40 countries. Bank of America Corporation stock (NYSE: BAC) is a component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average and is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

The views and opinions expressed are subject to change without notice at any time, and may differ from views expressed by Retirement & Philanthropic Services or other divisions of Bank of America. Since economic and market conditions change frequently, there can be no assurance that the trends described here will continue or that the forecasts will come to pass .These materials are provided for informational purposes only.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch is a marketing name for the Retirement & Philanthropic Services businesses of Bank of America Corporation ("BAC"). Banking and fiduciary activities are performed by wholly owned banking affiliates of BAC, including Bank of America, N.A., Member FDIC. Brokerage services are performed by wholly owned brokerage affiliates of BAC, including Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Incorporated ("MLFP&S"), which is a registered broker-dealer and member SIPC.


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