Charitable Giving Hits $316 Billion in 2012

Free Arts NYC's 12th annual art auction benefit at Chelsea Art Museum in New York.
Sonia Moskowitz | Getty Images
Free Arts NYC's 12th annual art auction benefit at Chelsea Art Museum in New York.

Remember the predictions that higher taxes would lead to less giving by the wealthy?

Well, they may have been wrong. In fact, looming tax hikes may have increased gifts in 2012.

The annual Giving USA report released this week showed charitable giving rose 3.5 percent last year, to $316.23 billion, an all-time record that surpassed the high-water mark of $311 billion in 2007 before the financial crisis. However, when adjusted for inflation, the 2012 total is still well below the 2007 total, which would be $344.5 billion in today's dollars.

Still, giving is higher despite predictions that it would take a hit as tax rates rose.

Giving by individuals rose 4 percent to $228.9 billion—the slowest percentage growth since 2009. The study said giving by individuals who itemize their gifts represented 81 percent of the total donated by individuals. Giving by bequest fell slightly, with itemized estates accounting for most the total.

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So where did philanthropists put their money last year?

Although religion continues to be the top-funded cause, its growth remains flat. Contributions to religion totaled $101 billion.

Education ranked second, with $41.3 billion, an increase of 7 percent.

"The growth in giving to arts- and environment-related organizations may be an indicator that donors began returning to their personal giving priorities amidst an economy that they perceived as recovering," said Una Osili, director of research at the Indiana University Lilly family School of Philanthropy.

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But giving to the arts and cultural groups grew the fastest, increasing 7.8 percent in 2012. Causes that support the environment and animals grew a robust 6.8 percent to $8.3 billion.

Human services received $40 billion in charitable giving, up 3.8 percent. While giving to health organizations rose 4.9 percent and public-society organizations rose 5.4 percent.

By CNBC's Robert Frank. Follow him on Twitter @robtfrank.