Giving to charity hits a record $410 billion. Here are the favorite causes of the rich

Key Points
  • Americans gave a record $410 billion to charity last year, according to the Giving USA annual report.
  • Total giving was up 5 percent in 2017.
  • Giving by individuals represented 70 percent of all giving.
Priscilla Chan (R) and her husband Mark Zuckerberg announce the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to "cure, prevent or manage all disease" by the end of the century during a news conference at UCSF Mission Bay in San Francisco.
Beck Diefenbach | Reuters

Americans gave a record $410 billion to charity last year, driven by a soaring stock market, strong economy and a charged political environment.

Total giving was up 5 percent in 2017, according to the Giving USA annual report. Giving by individuals represented 70 percent of all contributions, although donations by foundations, bequests and companies also increased.

"Americans' record-breaking charitable giving in 2017 demonstrates that even in divisive times our commitment to philanthropy is solid," said Aggie Sweeney, chair of Giving USA Foundation and senior counsel at Campbell & Company. "Contributions went up nearly across the board, signaling that Americans seem to be giving according to their beliefs and interests, which are diverse and wide-ranging."

Giving to every major category increased in 2017, with the exception of donations to international affairs, which saw a 4 percent decline.

Religion is still the largest charitable cause in America, with donations up 3 percent to $127.4 billion — or more than a third of the total. Education ranked second at $59 billion, up 6 percent.

That was followed by human services, at $51 billion, foundations at $46 billion, health organizations at $38 billion and public-society benefit organizations at $30 billion. Giving to the arts and culture increased to $20 billion and giving to the environment and animal groups rose to $12 billion.

Foundations saw the biggest growth, up 16 percent, due to massive gifts from super-rich donors to their foundations. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, gave $1.9 billion to the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation and Dell computer founder Michael Dell and his wife, Susan, gave $1 billion to the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.

"This tells us that some of our most fortunate citizens are using their wealth to make some significant contributions to the common good," said Amir Pasic, dean of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University.

It's unclear how the new tax law will affect giving this year and beyond. While the charitable deduction was preserved, the increase in the standard deduction to $24,000 for families will make it less attractive for less-wealthy donors to give to charity. Some estimate that the tax change will lead to a $14 billion decrease in charitable giving in 2018 by middle-class households.