Fewer millennials own homes, get married or go to church. Will they still give to charity?

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Charities depend on donors’ generosity to fulfill their missions.

But in the past few years, the number of Americans who donate to charity has dropped.

For the first time in nearly two decades, only half of U.S. households donated to charity in 2018, according to a 2021 study by Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Still, total charitable donations are reaching record highs, but the giving is being done by a smaller percentage of the population.

“Among those who are giving, giving has gone up or at least held steady, so we call this, donors are down but dollars are up or holding steady,” said Una Osili, associate dean for research and international programs at the Lilly School. “But what is more concerning is a fraction of the American population has stopped giving.”

Philanthropy has become increasingly “top heavy” over the years, with charities relying more on large donations from a small segment of wealthy donors, according to the Institute for Policy Studies.

“That means that wealthy individuals are going to play more of a role with sort of shaping the kinds of changes that happen through giving and philanthropy, and that can have some can have some negative consequences,” said David Campbell, a professor of public administration at Binghamton University. “If those choices are not consistent with the wishes of the large majority of people, it's sort of, you can say, antidemocratic, because the wishes of the wealthiest individuals can be imposed on the rest of the population.”

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About 40% of the decline in American households’ donations can be explained by changes in income and wealth, suggesting that other factors such as growing mistrust in institutions could also play a role, Osili said.

Religious and secular giving decline at different rates

As church membership declines, the number of Americans who give to religious causes has decreased. Between 2000 and 2004, 46% of households gave to religious causes, but that percentage fell to 29% in 2018, according to the Lilly School study.

Religious “people will give as part of their membership in the church, and as church membership has declined, that may account for some people at the lower end of the income distribution, not giving as much,” Campbell said.

About 3 in 10 U.S. adults are religiously unaffiliated, also known as religious “nones” – people who self-describe as atheists, agnostics or "nothing in particular" when asked about their religious identity, according to the Pew Research Center.

Meanwhile, the number of households that give to secular causes started to decrease after the Great Recession at a slower rate than religious causes. The share of households donating to secular causes dropped from 52% in 2010 to of 42% in 2018.

Generational differences in donating

Age represents another factor in the decline in giving.

Young Americans are less likely to give than older generations in part because the Great Recession made it hard for them to establish a habit of donating, Osili said.

Interpersonal trust is also lower among younger Americans than in older Americans.

“Millennials and the younger generations are less likely to own homes, to get married, to affiliate with religious congregations,” Osili said. “And all of those factors are also very closely linked with charitable giving.”

Technology changing the philanthropic environment

In the past, supporting a cause meant donating to a nonprofit or charitable organization, but now, technology has helped expand the ways people give, Osili said.

Crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe, for instance, offer a new means of giving and make it relatively easy to start a campaign.

“They're much more personal in nature, because often they were they're built on personal relationships,” Campbell said. “I know this person who is in need, or my sister knows this person that's in need or my good friend knows this person in need. And I'm going to trust that the person in need really needs the money because I trust my friend, or I know the person that's in need.”

Why giving matters

For Osili, the decline in U.S. households donating is concerning because charitable giving is a “core value for – the idea that people of all different backgrounds contribute to the private provision of public goods.”

She said that not only is there concern over continuing the tradition of giving, but also making sure that the charitable sector is diverse and inclusive so people of all backgrounds, income groups and education levels can participate.

Campbell said giving is a way of expressing concern for one's neighbor and community.

“When there's a decline in individual giving, if there's a decline in social trust, if there's a decline in people seeing that their money can make a difference, if there's a decline in people's perception of their own ability to make a difference, it's going to reduce social cohesion," Campbell said. "It's going to reduce ... the ability for people to feel like they're connected to their neighbor and can make a meaningful difference."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Charitable donations in US decline to lowest rate in decades: Study