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Did foundation giving and payout shift in 2020? 

Bar chart with FY 2020% increase in dollars awarded by grantmaker type

Every year, Candid conducts the Foundation Giving Forecast Survey, asking large U.S. foundations to share information about their philanthropic giving over the last two years as well as their plans for the year ahead. This year, we were especially interested in learning how foundation giving and payout might have shifted in 2020.  

Overall, we found that foundations increased their giving in fiscal year (FY) 2020. Larger organizations were more likely to report increases, as were community foundations. But increases in giving were not necessarily matched with higher payout. For those that did increase payout, they cited the crises of 2020 as reasons to give more. Looking forward, in FY 2021, most foundations aim to sustain FY 2020 levels of giving but expressed concerns about being able to extend themselves further.    

About the survey 

In early 2021, Candid sent an online survey to roughly 4,000 of the largest foundations by total giving.[1] In all, 601 funders (which included 435 independent foundations, 120 community foundations, 45 corporate foundations, and one operating foundation) responded. Survey participants answered questions about their grantmaking in FY 2019 and FY 2020 along with their plans for giving in FY 2021. They also reported their payout in FY 2020 and whether it had increased compared to the prior year. 

FY 2020 giving 

Nearly two-thirds of surveyed foundations increased their giving in FY 2020 compared to FY 2019. Larger foundations were more likely to increase giving. Of those awarding $50 million or more, 88 percent of foundations reported increased giving. In contrast, 65 percent of foundations awarding between $1 and $49 million and 58 percent of those awarding less than $1 million reported increased giving. Community foundations were more likely to increase giving (78 percent), compared to corporate foundations (65 percent) and independent foundations (62 percent). 

Pie chart of FY 2020 giving compared to FY 2019

Community foundations demonstrated the largest proportionate dollar increase in giving. Overall, the total dollars awarded increased by 24 percent among all foundations in FY 2020. When looking at different foundation types separately, however, we see that community foundations’ giving increased by 53 percent, compared to a 14 percent rise by independent foundations and 12 percent by corporate foundations. This is likely due to large distributions made by community foundations from COVID-19 and donor-advised funds  in 2020.  

Bar graph of FY 2020 percent increase in dollars awarded by grantmaker typeFY 2020 payout 

To truly understand how giving trends changed last year, it is important to examine not just increases in grantmaking dollars but also shifts in payout. Generally, a private foundation must meet or exceed an annual payout requirement of 5 percent of the value of its endowment toward eligible charitable expenditures. This is to ensure that foundations put their money to use for the good of society rather than simply storing wealth. In 2020, during a time of extraordinary needs, many were looking to foundations not just to give more than in previous years but to increase their payout as well.  

The FY 2020 payout picture was mixed. While 43 percent of private, endowed foundations reported that their payout increased, more than half said that payout either remained the same or decreased in FY 2020. Larger foundations were more likely to increase payout: 59 percent of those awarding $50 million or more increased payout, compared to 42 percent of those awarding under $1 million.[2] 

Pie chart of FY 2020 payout compared to FY 2019

The average payout among private, endowed foundations was 7.3 percent. The median and mode were 5 percent.  

Bar graph of FY 2020 payout as a percentage of net assets by number of private, endowed foundations

The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to an increase in payout for some and a decrease for others. Respondents were able to provide an explanation for their payout.  

Among foundations whose payout decreased, responses included: 

  • “The pandemic halted all grant/recognition activities.” 
  • “Volatile market conditions prompted reduced spending to protect long-term sustainability.” 

Many foundations, however, increased their payout because of greater needs due to the pandemic: 

  • The foundation and its Board felt it was important to respond during this time of crisis in which we are living through a global pandemic with deep impact to our service area.” 
  • “We made additional grants in response to COVID and made a large multi-year grant.” 

Several cited reasons beyond the pandemic for increasing payout: 

  • “The foundation invested…in civic participation grants around the 2020 election.” 
  • “2020 was a critical year for democracy and climate.” 
  • “Due to the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic, related economic crisis, and the surge in the movement for Black lives and to defund the police, the board voted to increase the payout.” 

Some foundations whose payout remained unchanged addressed COVID-19 needs in other ways: 

  • “We did not specifically make a decision to give out more as a percentage of our assets, but our assets went up, so more was paid out. Also, it is worth noting that we also were more targeted and flexible with our giving in light of the pandemic. We traditionally focus on capital grants but gave out significantly more unrestricted dollars in 2020. We also allowed several grantees from 2019 who received capital grants to use any unspent dollars on operations in 2020.” 
  • “We paid out COVID-19 grants in lieu of other grants.” 

Looking ahead: FY 2021 giving 

The majority of funders plan to maintain their FY 2020 giving levels in FY 2021. Some noted that continuing to give at FY 2020 levels is still more than what is typical for their foundation.  

Pie chart of respondents who will decrease giving (14%), increase (35%), stay about the same (51%) in FY 2021 compared to 2020Community and corporate foundations are more likely to anticipate decreased giving in FY 2021. Twenty-two percent of community foundations and 21 percent of corporate foundations expect giving to decline, compared to 11 percent of independent foundations. A community foundation commented: “Our grantmaking in 2020 was unprecedented, due to generous donors. We can hope for a comparable year this year, but it’s hard to predict.” 

About 35 percent of respondents expect to give more in FY 2021. Larger foundations were more likely to expect an increase in giving. Many respondents anticipate that favorable market returns will be the main driver for increased giving, an indication that payout is not likely to go up, even if total giving does. Those who reduced activities in FY 2020 plan to resume regular operations, and other funders pointed to increased needs and COVID-19 as reasons to give more.  

The data gathered from this year’s survey shows that funders were not immune to the social and economic events of 2020. They responded in different ways, depending on their circumstances. The question, “Will funders continue with changed practices or revert to the pre-pandemic status quo?” had a mixed bag of answers. Though giving increased in FY 2020 for most foundations, payout was not as likely to increase. With foundations continuing to address increased needs from communities, aided by anticipated investment gains, we can feel cautiously optimistic about giving in FY 2021.  

Our thanks to the foundations that participated in this year’s Foundation Giving Forecast Survey. We conduct this survey annually and welcome feedback on what you’d like us to ask the field in 2022. Please share your ideas in the comments section below.  

[1] We focused specifically on large foundations because they account for the vast proportion of grant dollars awarded. 

[2] Community foundations are public charities and are, therefore, not subject to the payout requirement. Still, community foundations may have endowed funds, for which they establish spending policies. Among community foundations who responded to this question, 19 percent reported an increase in payout; 73 percent responded that payout remained about the same. 


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