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American Philanthropy Not Just for the Wealthy

  • Wang Yiru

Each year, Business Week magazine publishes a list of the 50 Most Generous American Philanthropists based on charitable donations over the past five years. Billionaire investor Warren Buffett ranked first in 2006, followed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda. But the rich are not the only ones giving to charities. Wang Yiru, with Elaine Lu providing the voiceover on video, has more on philanthropy in the United States.

Warren Buffett's stunning announcement last year that he is donating $31 billion, more than 80 percent of his fortune, to the Gates Foundation redefined philanthropy. Together, the world's two richest men hope to fund advances in world healthcare, science and education.

While the gifts of the rich make splashy headlines, statistics show most charitable donations in the U.S. come from less prominent individuals.

Ian Wilhelm, a reporter with the Chronicle of Philanthropy, a newspaper that focuses on the non-profit sector, says Americans are generous.

"We have a strong spirit of giving in the U.S," he says. "It's based on the idea of entrepreneur spirit of [Do It Yourself] and individualism.

"There's also a sense that we need to give money because the government is not necessarily the best way of giving back to the society or helping people," he adds. "I think that's one of the drives. Of course there's [also] religion. The latest study shows U.S. donation per capita is higher than the U.K., Germany, France, all lower than the U.S."

Charitable donations mostly go to non-profit organizations such as hospitals, churches and schools, and are often tax deductible.

Lynwood Campbell is a board member of the United Way, one of the largest non-profit organizations in the U.S.

"I used to be very busy when I was young. I didn't have time to volunteer, but I always make my annual contribution," he says. "When I give, I don't feel I am losing anything. To me, it's an obligation."

Wilhelm says while there is a tax benefit in charitable giving, people are more often motivated by the spirit of giving.

"Before anyone gives away a big gift, I am sure they talk to a tax lawyer and make sure they get the ultimate benefit they can from the gift they're going to make," he notes. "They want to make sure they make the best deal possible for them. But I think most people are really motivated by the spirit of giving and helping others."

Wilhelm notes that charitable giving does not end with the act of giving. More and more people are paying attention to how their donations are used.

"They're generating a lot of wealth when they're quite a bit younger," he says. "They have a different approach, kind of taking over their entrepreneurial spirit into philanthropy where they want to have a hands-on control over some of the things they will be giving to. They really want to see results like businesses would like to see results in terms of business."

Wilhelm shares a story of how giving inspires others.

"Someone once told me a story that Warren Buffet's gift inspired a seven-year-old girl who wanted to send $35, her life savings, to the Gates Foundation," he recalls.

Exceptionally wealthy or not, many people have the innate spirit of giving, even those who seem to be most in need.

Anthony Johnson is an AIDS patient who says he tries to do his part.

"You always have to give back," he says. "I have a saying that nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something. Together, we can do anything. I would of course want to do my part, my portion."

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