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  • March 04, 2021
Volunteers from the Colis du Coeur Zakaria association hand out food to people in the working-class district of Marolles, in Brussels, in February, thanks to donations from individuals.
Credit…Stephanie Lecocq/EPA, via Shutterstock

Philanthropic giving in response to the Covid-19 pandemic topped $20 billion last year, orders of magnitude more than past disasters, man-made or natural, according to a report released Wednesday by the groups Candid and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.

The total includes global giving by foundations, corporations, public charities and wealthy individuals.

“It’s far and away more than we have ever seen for disasters,” said Grace Sato, director of research at Candid. “It’s an overused term to say unprecedented, but I would say funding for Covid-19 has been unprecedented in terms of giving.”

By comparison, Candid found only $1 billion in gifts responding to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and just $362 million for the Ebola crisis in West Africa less than a decade ago.

Demands on frontline charities have grown even as they face immense financial pressure. The Center for Civil Society Studies at Johns Hopkins University estimated that nearly 1 million jobs had been lost in the nonprofit sector in the United States from the start of the pandemic through January 2021, a 7.7 percent decline from February 2020.

The needs created by lockdowns, shortages of medical equipment and millions of deaths were unusual, but many of the names leading the way in giving last year are familiar. Among foundations, the two biggest givers were the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which pledged $1.33 billion in response to the crisis, and the Rockefeller Foundation, which pledged more than $1.1 billion.

Corporations were responsible for 44 percent of total giving, with Google’s philanthropic arm pledging $1.16 billion.

Ms. Sato said the report did not capture smaller individual gifts to frontline charities, work by mutual-aid societies or crowdsourced fund raisers. It did include significant gifts announced by major donors, including MacKenzie Scott, a relative newcomer to mega-philanthropy.

Ms. Scott, a novelist and the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, gave away nearly $6 billion last year. The report counted $4 billion of that as responding to the pandemic, totaling nearly three-quarters of Covid-19 related giving by high-net-worth individuals.

While the more than $20 billion in donations was an enormous amount of giving compared with past crises, that figure is dwarfed by the trillions of dollars in government stimulus packages.

“Compared to government spending, it’s a drop in the bucket,” Ms. Sato said.

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