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Getting Past the Philanthropic Foolery

The debate over the White House proposal to limit the tax deductions the rich can take on charitable donations has so far revolved around questions over whether the wealthy would give less if they couldn’t deduct as much as they do now. The better question: Just how much are the rich now really giving?

By Sam Pizzigati

The good folks at the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy would like us to know that we can gain “new insights” aplenty from the just-published second edition of their ongoing landmark research on the charitable giving of America’s rich.

The first edition of this research — the largest survey of wealthy Americans about charity “ever conducted” — covered 2005. The Center’s new Study of High Net Worth Philanthropy [1], based on a random sampling of “over 20,000 households in high net-worth neighborhoods,” covers 2007.

And what can we learn from this massive research? In the news release [2] announcing the new report’s unveiling, we get an answer from the Bank of America, the financial institution that’s sponsoring the Center’s research on the eminently comfortable and their charitable contributions.

“Our clients,” says Cary Grace, the Bank of America’s charity chief, “are taking a more proactive approach to integrating philanthropy into their wealth management strategies.”

The rest of the news release goes on to list a variety of equally scintillating “insights.” The wealthy, the release informs us, “demonstrate a strong desire” to give back to their communities. The rich expect the charities that get their contributions to engage in “sound business practices.” Their giving, the awesomely affluent believe, sets a good “example” for their children.

But don’t let this news release pablum fool you. The new Indiana University Center on Philanthropy research on the rich really does offer some eye-opening findings. You just won’t the Center’s flacks talking about them.

The reason: This new study, once you actually dive into the survey data, makes America’s very rich — the clients the Bank of America most covets — look something less than generous. Much less.

Between 2005 and 2007, Wall Street’s biggest go-go years, charitable contributions from Americans who make over $5 million a year dropped 14.1 percent, after taking inflation into account.

We can’t say exactly what happened to the incomes of these wealthy Americans over that two-year span, because the IRS hasn’t yet released any official stats for 2007. We do know that taxpayers making over $5 million — just three-hundredths of 1 percent of the taxpaying public — upped their share of America’s total income, between 2005 and 2006, from 9.1 to 10 percent.

That’s the equivalent of a $45.9 billion swing to the 40,848 households at the tippy top of America’s economic ladder. A significant sum, to be sure, but not enough apparently to prevent the super wealthy from cutting back, one year later, on their charitable giving. Households making over $5 million a year dropped their average giving from $995,192 in 2005 to $855,200 in 2007.

But doesn’t this $855,200 still represent a hefty act of generosity? Not really, not once you consider the net worth of America’s richest families. In 2007, families worth $50 million or more gave an average $885,387 to charity. That sum computes to just 1.48 percent of their average 2007 net worth.

Between 2005 and 2007, we need to remember, the hedge funds that the super rich were busily stashing their fortunes into were routinely returning 15 to 20 percent per year and more. Even the most conservative of wealthy investors were getting double-digit returns from their private wealth managers.

The super rich, given these investment returns, could have upped what they actually gave to charity in 2007 by five or ten times and still ended the year with a higher household net worth than when the year started.

Back in the 1990s, a multimillionaire San Francisco money manager named Claude Rosenberg started a research group dedicated to demonstrating to rich people this very message, that they could easily afford to give far more of their fortunes to charity than they actually do.

In the year 2000, Rosenberg’s researchers would go on to document, households with $1 million or more in income could have given $128 billion more to charity than they did in fact give, without losing any net worth over the course of the year.

Claude Rosenberg, a true generous soul, died last May at the age of 80. His message to the rich [3], the new data from the Indiana University Center for Philanthropy make abundantly clear, remains sadly unheeded.

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much [4], the online weekly on excess and inequality.