Alum in Action: Philanthropy in the Age of COVID

Fewer Americans are donating to charity, but those who do give are more generous. Batten alum Chris Woodfolk (BA ’20) shares philanthropic trends for 2021 and offers a few tips in the new year.

Batten alum Chris Woodfolk (BA ’20)
Batten alum Chris Woodfolk (middle) participates in a holiday toy drive. (Submitted photo)

The summer of 2020 was a unique time for American businesses. “Many corporations were acknowledging that the U.S. is still grappling with systemic issues that have long plagued this country and its people,” said Chris Woodfolk (BA ’20). 

LendingTree — a platform that connects borrowers with financial loans such as mortgages and credit cards — was no different. Woodfolk was working as an intern with the company when he learned that its CEO was looking to increase philanthropy that would combat deep-rooted, systemic problems in America. He wanted to help.

Today, Woodfolk works to promote LendingTree’s philanthropic initiatives in financial wellness, upward mobility, homeownership, and innovation and entrepreneurship. The Batten School spoke with Woodfolk about trends in charitable giving during the pandemic, along with his recommendations for making smart decisions about how and where to donate.

How did your time at UVA, and the Batten School specifically, influence your career path? 

At Batten, I learned that community impact can be driven through numerous means. That influenced my decision to affect change from the private sector, and it provided me with a framework for everything I do in my position at LendingTree. The Bachelor of Arts in Public Policy and Leadership taught me not only about how public policy decisions are made, but also about how leaders in government, non-profit organizations and the private sector contribute to collective problem-solving. 

A recent report from LendingTree found that 56% of Americans donated to charity in 2021. How does that number compare to previous years and pre-pandemic levels? 

Charitable donations are down 14% this year from pre-pandemic levels. The 56% who donated to charity in 2021 is about the same as in 2020 (55%), but well below 2019 levels (65%). However, it’s important to note that those who donated in 2021 did, on average, donate more. In 2021, the average charitable donation amount reported by respondents was $574. In 2019, the majority of respondents (73%) donated less than $500 to charity. 

What were some of the top causes and organizations Americans contributed to in 2021?

Americans supported three top causes in 2021: food banks, religious institutions and programs, and protecting animals. This was the case across younger and older generations, as well as political parties.

Are there any noteworthy trends you’ve seen in charitable giving this holiday season?

There were two emerging trends for charitable donations this year and last: supporting those in need of financial relief due to COVID-19 and supporting racial justice initiatives. 

As the pandemic maintains its grip on the country, Americans are still heavily donating to coronavirus relief funds and directly to individuals affected by the virus. Moreover, the percentage of people supporting racial justice causes reached an all-time high of 21% in 2021, highlighting a shift from protests to increased monetary assistance. 

What should people consider when evaluating which causes or organizations to give to?

Identify causes that align with your passions and extracurricular activities; that way, you may be able to create multi-year relationships with those organizations and become more inclined to go beyond the donation and volunteer. Furthermore, take the time to understand outcomes. Many non-profits provide annual summaries which highlight their impact, from the number of people served to information about size and spending.

Do you have any tips for charitable giving on a budget?

My first tip is to always check with your employer about company matching programs. For example, LendingTree matches charitable contributions for every dollar donated up to $1,500.

Second, see if you can donate your credit card rewards. Many credit card issuers allow customers to donate their rewards to a variety of causes, including to registered US non-profits. Lastly, give your time! There are volunteer opportunities available in every community. Many times, the person-to-person interaction means much more than any dollar amount.

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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