Why 2020 may be a year of giving

Donations for charity or politics could hit new records even as concepts of giving are changing.

Volunteers in Boston present a $10,000 donation on Dec. 7 to Catie's Closet to buy winter gear for impoverished students.

Politics in the U.S. has become so intense that spending on political ads for the 2020 elections could reach $20 billion. That would be a big jump from $16 billion four years ago. More people are willing to give more money for public causes.

At the same time, private giving to nonprofit groups may also see a banner year. In 2019, charitable giving reached an estimated $430 billion, up slightly from the year before despite a 2017 tax law that reduces taxpayer incentives to itemize donations. And during the November event known as Giving Tuesday, charities raised $511 million globally compared with $380 million in 2018.

In both types of giving, whether for advocacy on a national issue or for action to solve a local problem, the motive is often a strong belief in how to shape society. Political donors, of course, may be trying to rig public policy for their personal benefit. But the line between selfless and selfish giving is often blurred. The larger picture is one of greater civic engagement, at least measured by donations.

Groups that rely on private giving are concerned that Americans have a limit on their generosity. They warn of a competition for dollars between charities and politicians. Or they worry about the rising cost to run an ad asking for money. Yet the limitation is not in the amount of “discretionary” money in people’s bank accounts. It is in the vision of those asking for the money. A worthy cause can alter a person’s spending priorities.

Giving to a cause can transform both the donor and the recipient. It incites others to give. It helps people align their values for common purpose. For many, giving is merely a reflection of the good given to them.

The meaning of giving has also expanded to include ethical investing or investing in for-profit businesses with social goals, such as selling goods made of recycled material. As trust in traditional institutions declines, young people are inventing new ways to help others. They seek giving that is egalitarian and results-guaranteed.

The biggest result of giving is a more compassionate society. Giving helps build community, whether it is a donation to a political campaign or a homeless shelter. Unlike the money itself, the effects can be immeasurable.

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