Imperiled Middle Class Could be Cautionary Note for Charitable Giving

A recent New York Times article, “Middle Class Shrinks Further as More Fall Out Instead of Climbing Up,” detailed the continued struggles a large swath of Americans face as they seek – and fail to find – their piece of the pie in the nation’s economic recovery.

The story was not about nonprofit giving or fundraising in particular, but it could serve as a clarion call for organizations examining how to mobilize middle-class financial support. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Recession officially ended in 2009. But, the Times reports, “since 2000, the middle-class share of households has continued to narrow, the main reason being that more people have fallen to the bottom.”

Despite this downward pattern, unlikely data about giving, by economic class, have emerged.

As covered in The Chronicle of Philanthropy in October 2014, even when economic times get tough, middle-class Americans tend to dig deeper into their pockets to share their finite resources in supporting causes and organizations. A Chronicle study unearthed a surprising find about giving practices between the haves and the have-nots:

The wealthiest Americans—those who earned $200,000 or more—reduced the share of income they gave to charity by 4.6 percent from 2006 to 2012. Meanwhile, Americans who earned less than $100,000 chipped in 4.5 percent more of their income during the same time period. Middle- and lower-income Americans increased the share of income they donated to charity, even as they earned less, on average, than they did six years earlier.

There is no shortage of commentaries, articles or online conversations about the “middle-class squeeze.” From rising rents to increasing food and energy costs, plus higher education expenses and medical bills, official reports and informal anecdotes suggest a continued strain on middle-class pocketbooks, even though 2014 was America’s greatest year of job creation in 15 years.

Dialogue around how nonprofit organizations will navigate this delicate imbalance should be deliberate and continuous. This is especially so, as middle-class donors, just like consumers, have many choices about how, or if, to set aside portions of their precious household budgets in supporting altruistic efforts.

In the comments section below, tell us how your organization is navigating these dynamics? What feedback have your donors given about how larger economic trends and forces may be impacting their charitable giving?

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