An increase in the number of multimillion-dollar gifts and a rise in new funds targeted for donation suggest a brightening picture in an otherwise lackluster charitable giving scene in the Sacramento region and nationally.
"I see reasons to be encouraged," said Ruth Blank, CEO of the Sacramento Region Community Foundation. "Many have opened new funds in the last few months."
The 29-year-old foundation, which manages donation funds for donors, offers the option of "donor-advised funds." These allow donors to allocate charitable funds in the current calendar year to qualify for current tax deduction rates. The funds can be allocated at a later date.
Blank said the foundation has seen 25 new funds this year. Last year, there were 18. Also, two deceased donors left bequests of over $1 million to the SRCF.
Blank said the foundation hasn't created so many new donation funds since 2007.
The donor-advised funds are popular because some tax advisers are warning clients that the charitable deduction rate could be at risk because of "fiscal cliff" issues.
The threat to tax deductions and the fact that 24 percent of annual donations are made between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve means it will be deep into next year before a complete picture emerges on charitable giving in 2012.
Overall, giving remains sluggish. It is expected to rise less then 2 percent nationwide from 2011, according to a recent national survey of nonprofits. And whatever gains are made this year will not come close to making up the ground lost when charitable giving plunged after 2008.
One thing is certain community foundations that offer donor-advised funds are now attracting what have become know as "mega-donations."
That notion was driven home boldly earlier this year when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg donated nearly $500 million in Facebook stock to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation the largest such donation that foundation has ever received.
"That's a pretty big significant sign about what donors are thinking about now. They're not just giving to colleges," said Stacy Palmer, editor with the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the leading national periodical on the nonprofit and charitable world.
Typically, the largest gifts are made to colleges and universities. In Northern California, the largest such gifts in 2012 went to Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley. The recipient of the largest Sacramento area donation was the University of California, Davis, which was given a $2.2 million gift by Arthur and Molly Wagner (see chart), according to Chronicle of Philanthropy summary data.
With one day left for donors to make 2012 gifts, the number of $1 million-plus donations nationally stands at 691, the most since the pre-recession year of 2007, when there were 764 such donations.
In 2012, there have been nine gifts of $100 million or higher more than in any year since 2008. Five of them were donated by Californians.
"It is due to the economy getting somewhat better for people who are wealthy," said Palmer.
Indeed, giving by wealthy households has remained steady throughout the downturn. The average giving rate among the wealthy, as a percentage of household income, held steady at approximately 9 percent between 2009 and 2011 according to the 2012 Bank of America Study of High Net Worth Philanthropy.
"It's definitely a positive sign when more of those million dollar-plus gifts are being made, but we don't know for sure who will benefit," Palmer said.
Some large organizations may not fare so well this year, despite the increase in large gifting.
"When you're the Salvation Army and you're raising $10 or $15 donations and you've become one of the biggest charities as a result, then your donations may not be doing so well because of the state of the economy," Palmer said.
Despite the very small gains overall this year, a positive outlook has taken hold at nonprofits. The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently polled 125 nonprofits and found that a majority expected to see increases in charitable giving in 2012 when compared with 2011. Half said they expected to raise more money this year than they did in years prior to the recession.