Earlier this year, the Indiana University Lilly School of Philanthropy published The Giving Environment: Understanding Pre-Pandemic Trends in Charitable Giving, a worrying report detailing the nation’s declining participation in philanthropy.
In 2018, for the first time since the panel started collecting data in 2000, the share of American households that donated to charity dropped to below 50 percent (49.6 percent). Just eighteen years ago, this figure was 16.6 percent higher.
Though this decline is precipitous and deeply concerning, it is not new: donation rates have been steadily declining since the Great Recession.
Moreover, this study found that only one-third of this decline can be attributed to changes in income and wealth.
Giving is a form of civic engagement, and its consistent decline unambiguously demonstrates that Americans are becoming less engaged in their communities. In order to change this, we need to engage the youth.
Recent research suggests that today’s young adults want to engage with their communities and help those in need but often fail to do so. Many high schoolers like myself want to change the world: we protest, post on social media, and complain about our inability to vote. However, most of our efforts stop there. Fortunately, it is not too late. If we invest in engaging young Americans now, we can address the problem of declining community engagement at its roots and inspire a renewed commitment to the American community. I have a few ideas to get us started.
1. We need educational outreach efforts to show young people how to engage with their communities.
I believe that young people’s lack of engagement is (at least partially) due to the fact that many of us do not consider engaging in philanthropic activities simply because the idea never occurred to us. While it is a prevailing norm to play sports after school, the same cannot be said for participating in traditional forms of civic engagement such as volunteering and giving. In my experience, for typical high school students to volunteer or give, they must first spontaneously decide that they want to contribute (Barrier #1), and they must find a suitable outlet (Barrier #2). Outreach programs, especially those centered in schools, could remind young people that civic engagement is an option to consider, removing Barrier #1. Efforts both to connect young adults with existing opportunities and to create more opportunities would simplify engagement, removing Barrier #2. Young people cannot become civically engaged if we do not show them how.
2. We need to engage Americans with their communities from a young age: the younger, the better.
A body of evidence suggests that civic engagement started during adolescence carries over into adulthood. This is why it is so important to invest in connecting young people with appropriate opportunities for engagement: even though these efforts will not suddenly inundate charities with donations, they will engage young adults with their communities. As these young adults grow older, this research suggests that they will remain civically engaged. Remember, giving is a widely recognized form of civic engagement. As Americans become more civically engaged, they will donate more.
For this reason, programs like the Kids for Kids Fund, which offers third, fourth, and fifth graders philanthropic experiences, have the potential to engender long-term change, laying the crucial foundations during childhood for later engagement in adulthood. Moreover, these types of efforts have the potential to start a chain reaction that indirectly creates a culture of civic engagement. As cited in research conducted by the University of California Santa Barbara, studies have found that “peers, family, school, and community contexts play an important role in influencing the likelihood of youth involvement in the civic domain.” Even if an outreach effort engages only a few families or adolescents, those who interact with these newly engaged citizens are also more likely to volunteer themselves. This is truly a situation where small efforts can create significant change.
3. Our attempts to inspire giving should focus on fostering an emotional connection between Americans and their respective communities.
Most of Maryland's young adults (74.1 percent) do not volunteer. This reality has persisted despite the Maryland Board of Education's 1992 decision to require community service for high school graduation, a blatant attempt to engage young people with their communities. Why? These requirements became just more assignments to be completed by next class. While they contained ideas about community engagement, there remained a disconnect. Instead, our efforts to foster civic engagement must focus on pathos, creating personal connections between Americans and their communities that make citizens want to volunteer and donate. An emotionless, requirements-based approach does not work.
A few years ago, while I was out getting breakfast with my friends in D.C., one of them bought a homeless man sitting outside a sandwich. He never said a word about it. When he ordered, I assumed he was simply planning on eating two sandwiches (we are teenage boys, after all). The point is that he did not do it to look good. He saw a person in need, empathized, and acted. Acts of kindness like this demonstrate that many young people genuinely want to help their communities. We do not need requirements or incentives. We just need opportunities.
The long-time problem of the nation’s declining donation rate – outlined in the Indiana University report – needs a long-term solution. This solution must involve developing and bolstering mechanisms for youth engagement that focus on creating emotional connections between America’s youth and those in need. I do not think that people my age will singlehandedly reverse the country’s declining civic participation and philanthropic giving, but I do think that we can get our nation moving in the right direction.
Yusuf Johnson is a senior in Towson High School’s Law and Public Policy magnet program. At Towson, he is the President of the National English Honors Society and an active participant Model Congress and Model United Nations. Outside of school, Yusuf interns at the Public Defender’s Office and works as a research assistant at the University of Maryland. In his free time, Yusuf enjoys cycling, fantasy football, chess, and reading.