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Record Charity Gift Seen as Spur for Ordinary Americans to Boost Giving

Warren Buffett's blockbuster $30 billion gift to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has excited charitable organizations, which hope the tycoon's generosity will be contagious. Buffett's donation is reportedly the largest donation in history. Average Americans cannot match that sum, but studies show they are also generous givers.

Americans have a long tradition of devoting part of their time, labor and financial resources to charitable causes. A study by the Giving USA Foundation released last week shows that in 2005, Americans increased their financial donations to charity by more than six percent. Giving USA Chairman Richard Jolly attributed much of the increase in giving to Americans' response to the Asian tsunami, the Pakistani earthquake and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Foundation board member Robert Evans says he believes Americans are the world's most generous people.

"Last year, the last calendar year, Americans gave $260 billion to non-profits, all over the United States, including international issues. Thirty-five percent of the giving went to religion," he said.

Evans said Americans give more to religious organizations than to any other cause, followed by education.

But are Americans really the most generous people on the planet? Critics have alleged the United States is stingy because, in terms of a slice of its gross national product, the U.S. government lags behind other donor nations.

Other experts say this statistic is misleading, because Americans prefer to give through the private sector, making it very difficult to produce any reliable international comparisons.

David Roodman of the Center for Global Development in Washington cites an OECD (Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation) study saying the U.S. ranks fourth worldwide in private giving to foreign countries, after Norway, Ireland and Switzerland. "We give about 10 cent, per person, per day in private aid out of our own pockets to poorer countries, which puts us at number four among the usual list of rich countries, which has about 21 countries on it. So we're four out of 21," he said.

Roodman says 80 to 90 percent of all American charitable gifts stay in the United States. He said he hopes Buffett's and Gates' generosity will inspire other Americans to give even more to the least fortunate.

"I think what Warren Buffett and Bill Gates may do is to change how everyday, regular Americans think about where to send their money and that could be a good thing," he said.

The Gates Foundation is committed to fighting global poverty and curing fatal diseases, as well as improving American education.