The economy is still humming.The stock market remains (for the most part) on an upswing. And a tax reform package passed last year leaves many wealthy donors with more money in the bank at a time when assets have skyrocketed in value. So how’s that translate to giving at the local level? For the most part, a surge in commerce means a lift for charity as well. “We have observed a high level of giving in general,” says Heidi Brown, CEO of Jewish Family and Children’s Services, “and we have observed donor confidence in JFCS as an organization. This will hopefully result in higher giving from our region’s philanthropists.” Foundation leaders working with individuals on donor-advised funds say there’s an increase in conversations about major donations. “Those people who are interested and active, when the market is up and there are tax advantages to gifting with appreciated assets, we continue to see generous philanthropy,” says Veronica Brady, senior vice president for philanthropy at Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

Local nonprofits report 2017 ended up a strong year for giving. And there are strong signs this year will be the same. The Giving Challenge, spearheaded by the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, saw $11.7 million raised over a 24-hour period in May. Of course, philanthropy can expect a surge in donations as 2018 comes to a close, mostly because of tax structures and the opportunity to claim deductions regarding spending over a calendar year. But on that front, changes to tax structure create a certain level of anxiety within the giving and philanthropic sector purely because of an introduction of uncertainty.

ILLUSTRATION BY WOODY WOODMAN.

Roxie Jerde, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, says as the old tax rules wound down at the end of 2017, there was a burst of funding from donors who wanted to avoid getting slapped with capital gains taxes on certain assets. 

At regional foundations, of course, advisors recommend donors utilize the tax code to their advantage so they can put more power behind the gift itself as well. “People should take full advantage of the current tax code with deductions for charitable giving,” Jerde says.

Likewise, Brady says the Gulf Coast Community Foundation encouraged people to maximize what they give. “The smartest gift you can give is an appreciated asset,” she says Greg Luberecki, spokesman for Gulf Coast Community Foundation, adds that by using donor-advised funds, individuals can take some advantage of the market and existing tax environment now, even if they want to structure things so the gift comes at a later period of time. 

The biggest shift seen in the last two years has been further interest in the practice of bunching, meaning concentrating giving in certain years for tax purposes, and letting the charities and causes know those dollars need to stretch over a longer period of time. “Let’s say you give $5,000 a year to a nonprofit,” Jerde says. “You may want to double what you give, or bunch your giving, to take advantage of the known tax law, and then you have banked your giving for next year so the nonprofit won’t be affected. Basically, you give big to take advantage, and then give every other year.”

The new tax code that went into effect in January allows charitable giving deductions for gifts. The break is limited to 60 percent of individuals’ adjusted gross income for cash gifts, but you can carry forward any amount the exceeds that threshold for up to five years.

This proves important, at least for the 28 percent of filers who itemize their taxes each year, according to the Brookings Institute.Luberecki says donor-advised funds can help here as well. “If the donor has the means to make a significant gift this year into a donor-advised fund at Gulf Coast, she or he can itemize the deduction and then pay out portions of that gift to the charities they support each year, for as many years as they want,” he says.

The greatest challenges this causes in the nonprofit world relate to predictability. An expected surge in donations from a group of individuals one year doesn’t mean they can count on that funding the following year. But as long as there’s communication between those writing the checks and those cashing them, donors can still use tax rules to the advantage of themselves and the causes they support.

The scariest shift in tax codes within the independent sector, though, comes with a change in those donations that don’t get itemized. Brady notes that with the standard deduction doubling this year, to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for couples, that means fewer people will go to the trouble of itemizing their giving at all.

“There will always be tax-oriented philanthropy. I don’t really even call those people philanthropists; I call them donors,” Brady says. Regardless, that means the number of people giving donations at the end of December will surely go down thanks to the change in tax code.

But so long as the economy keeps purring, the best news for charity may simply be that people will feel good about their own affairs come the end of 2018.

“People think now is a good opportunity to give. The market is up. Appreciated assets are up. I’m happy. Let me make a gift,” Brady says. “We don’t anticipate a drop-off in giving in 2018.”