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Revisiting Predictions about Charitable Giving

by Bret Bicoy, President and CEO, Door County Community Foundation

Political prognosticators love to make extreme claims on how a new policy will affect the future, then conveniently forget their predictions when the doom they imagined never arrives. In an effort to avoid being lumped in with those gasbags, I thought it would be intellectually honest to revisit a prediction I made one year ago.

In September 2018, I wrote the column “The Impending Decline in Charitable Giving” (doorcountypulse.com/commentary-the-impending-decline-in-charitable-giving), in which I voiced a concern of many experts that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2018 would decrease the amount Americans donate to charities every year. The annual Giving USA report was recently published, so we now have a full year’s worth of hard data to review. 

As a refresher, the anticipated decline in charitable giving was rooted in the fact that changing the standard deduction (from $12,700 to $24,000 for married couples) would dramatically reduce the number of households that itemize deductions. 

This prediction by tax experts on both sides of the political aisle has come true. In 2016, more than 46 million households itemized their deductions. In 2018, only about 18 million did.

Taxpayers can claim a tax deduction for charitable gifts only if they itemize their deductions. Hence, the new tax law eliminated the deduction for contributions made by 28 million households. Although most of us give for altruistic reasons, financial incentives still matter. By removing the financial incentive to donate, experts predicted that charitable giving would decline.

We can definitively say that the prediction has become reality. Giving USA found that donations from individuals fell by an inflation-adjusted 3.4 percent last year. Unfortunately, that’s not the only troubling indicator.

Total giving consists of donations from individuals, foundations, corporations and bequests. Individual giving tumbled to just 68 percent of total giving, the first time it’s fallen below 70 percent since 1954. 

My personal belief is that giving will decline in 2019 as well. Most people don’t follow tax-law changes closely and didn’t realize their donations were no longer deductible until April’s tax deadline. For those families, the loss of the financial incentive to give will have its greatest effect in 2019.

Please note that I’m not commenting on the wisdom of the new tax law – that’s above my pay grade. An argument can be made that putting more money into taxpayers’ pockets is better for our nation. I certainly hope that proves to be true. However, the inescapable reality is that charitable giving is falling, and it is in my job description to figure out how Door County can adapt to the laws of the land. 

That’s where a tool long offered by community foundations is more important than ever. At community foundations across the country, we are combining a tool called a Donor Advised Fund with the tax strategy of “bunching.” In effect, this “restores” the deductibility of charitable gifts for many families.

Consider a real example of a couple at the Door County Community Foundation. Bob and Sally Johnson (not their real names) are retired and annually donate about $12,000 to charity. Before the new tax law, the Johnsons’ itemized deductions included their donations, Wisconsin taxes and medical expenses. With the new tax law, they found themselves claiming the standard deduction of $24,000 and thus received absolutely no tax benefit for their $12,000 in contributions.

Thus Bob and Sally recently created the Johnson Family Fund, a Donor Advised Fund at the Door County Community Foundation. They plan to “prefund” their charitable giving for the next four years by donating $50,000 into their fund before 2019 ends. As a result, the Johnsons will claim itemized deductions of about $60,000 this tax year. Then in tax years 2020, 2021 and 2022, they will claim the standard deduction of $24,000 and make no direct contributions at all. Instead, they will donate $12,000 each year to their favorite charities in Door County (and beyond) from their Donor Advised Fund.

Bunching several years’ worth of contributions through a Donor Advised Fund at your local community foundation is proving to be an exceptionally effective tax-planning tool for many families that once itemized their deductions but now claim the standard deduction. If Bob and Sally use highly appreciated stock to make their $50,000 contribution, their tax savings will be magnified even more as they avoid capital-gains taxes.

Talk with your tax-planning professional to determine whether bunching several years’ worth of charitable gifts through a Donor Advised Fund might help you maintain your level of giving. Our charities need all the help they can get.

You can reach Bret Bicoy at [email protected]

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