A turbulent 2020 saw a rise in giving

Adversity worldwide, caused by the pandemic, recession, and civil unrest, led more people to donate time and money.

A woman takes bread at the Porchlight Community Service food pantry in San Diego, Calif., in May.

Reports out of Myanmar indicate a country on the verge of economic collapse, a result of a military coup four months ago that has led to mass dissent, a violent crackdown, and a possible civil war. Yet despite this adversity, the people of Myanmar are living up to their reputation as one of the world’s most altruistic people. According to other reports, they have stepped up donations of food and money for both poor people and the protesters.

“They are happy when we donate food. Some even cry,” one volunteer at a new food bank in Yangon, told Agence France-Presse. The bump-up in charity comes out of Myanmar’s tradition of religious-based giving and mutual aid, known as parahita. “Our greatest weapon is the strong desire of the people. No other weapons are necessary,” a member of the Get Well Soon charity group told Myanmar Today.

The Southeast Asian country is just the latest example of lovingkindness rising to the occasion in turbulent times. In the United States, which last year saw three great upheavals a recession, people’s lives upturned by the pandemic, and racial justice protests – charitable giving reached record levels. Americans gave $471 billion, or a 3.8% increase over the previous year when adjusted for inflation, according to the “Giving USA” report from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University.

During most recessions, giving in the U.S. goes down. But with the stock market up and Americans responding to both COVID-19 and the call for racial justice, they reached for their checkbooks and Venmo accounts to donate. In particular, charities that focus on basic needs saw an 8.4% jump in giving. Food banks saw a doubling in donations. And, according to the Fundraising Effectiveness Project, the overall number of individual donors grew by 7.3%.

The rise in giving came even as the percentage of Americans who belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque went below 50% for the first time. Among 18- to 30-year-olds, the rate of donations to causes doubled in 2020 compared with the three previous years, according to a survey by the group Cause and Social Influence.

Worldwide last year, more than half of adults helped someone they didn’t know – the highest level ever recorded – according to the 2021 World Giving Index. And the level of donations was higher than in the previous five years.

“The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens,” 19th-century Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville remarked after observing American society. But a society’s future can also be judged on its ability to respond to adversity with compassion and generosity.

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