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Report delves into what Americans think about philanthropy and nonprofits

Written on May 5, 2023

Americans know relatively little about the nonprofit sector, and while their attitudes toward it are broadly positive, their level of trust is limited, reflecting a broad societal trust in institutions overall. 

Those are among the key findings of a report by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University. 

A plurality of respondents, 39%, said they trusted nonprofits to “generally do what is right” completely or very much — short of a majority, but the highest level among the categories surveyed. 

Only a third of respondents were aware that the percentage of Americans giving to charity has declined significantly. Respondents were generally unfamiliar with the various kinds of charities, how they differ and the state of policy debates around issues such as tax treatment of charitable giving and the ability of the wealthy to exercise political and social power through their philanthropy. 

Just over 1 in 20 said they or their family had received services from a charity in the past year. 

“Given the many ways individuals engage with nonprofit organizations in everyday life (e.g., religious services, educational programming, beautification projects, museum programs, theatrical productions), it appears that many Americans do not recognize their own engagement with nonprofits or understand the nonprofit services they are unknowingly receiving,” the study authors said. 

The lack of awareness contrasts with the growing influence of the nonprofit sector, the study authors said. Nearly 75% of existing foundations are less than a quarter century old, and they hold more than $1 trillion in assets. 

The report calls on nonprofits to increase their communication, and outreach efforts, particularly to everyday people and under-represented groups and to improve their transparency and accountability practices.