The spring of 2020 was marked by disruptions to society on a level many Americans had never experienced. The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) had a devastating human toll, infecting more than 1.7 million individuals and resulting in more than 100,000 deaths in the U.S. through May 2020. This public health crisis necessitated widespread community shutdowns and social distancing, upending virtually all aspects of American life. Some—from those working on the frontlines of the healthcare system to those stocking essential items in grocery stores—continued to work at their places of employment, but assumed substantial health and safety risks. Others shifted to working from home, bringing their personal and professional lives together in new ways. As schools and childcare facilities simultaneously closed, many parents were forced to take on the roles of childcare provider and homeschool educator in addition to their work responsibilities.

Still others lost their jobs or were furloughed, as businesses made significant cuts to their workforce in order to stay afloat. This included entire industries, such as travel and hospitality, whose operations largely ground to a halt. Record-high unemployment rates coupled with the fall of financial markets caused a sudden, severe economic downturn in the U.S. and across the globe. As a result, scores of Americans struggled to make ends meet. Nonprofit organizations providing food and other basic needs experienced a dramatic influx of households seeking assistance, many of whom had never previously required their services. In addition to increased demand, many nonprofits were suddenly forced to shift their fundraising strategies away from in-person events. The COVID-19 pandemic also required that organizations and fundraisers be extremely sensitive to the health, financial, and other challenges Americans were facing when requesting donations.

These circumstances combined to create an unprecedented environment for charitable giving during the initial months of the pandemic in the U.S. While many of these conditions are still present due to the ongoing nature of the public health crisis and associated economic downturn, this report offers a snapshot of how U.S. households responded to the COVID-19 pandemic through philanthropy. Beyond examining whether and how much households contributed, the report explores the types of philanthropy in which they participated and how their charitable giving changed. The study also pinpoints the effect of specific elements of the crisis on their giving. Finally, to provide a more nuanced picture of philanthropic responses to the pandemic, the report highlights differences across household types, with a particular focus on gender and marital status.

Key Findings: 

  1. Around one-third of U.S. households gave directly to charitable organizations, individuals, or businesses in response to the COVID-19 pandemic during the initial months of the crisis.
  2. Nearly half of households gave indirectly in response to the pandemic during the early months of the crisis (for example, by ordering takeout to support restaurants and their employees, or continuing to pay individuals and businesses for services they could not render).
  3. The majority of U.S. households’ giving stayed the same during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic; however, those who reported changes were more likely to say their giving decreased rather than increased as a result of the crisis.
  4. Households were more likely to decrease than increase their giving as a result of conditions present during the early months of the pandemic (such as uncertainty about the spread of the virus and further economic impacts).
  5. Single women were more likely than single men and married/partnered couples to decrease their giving as a result of specific elements of the COVID-19 pandemic during the initial months of the crisis.