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Charitable Giving Ingrained in US Culture

Volunteers for The Salvation Army sort children's pajamas for donation at a Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service event at Girard College in Philadelphia, January 17, 2011.

Donating to charities is a part of American life. According to the World Giving Index, the United States is the most generous country in the world, followed by Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Britain. According to another study, ordinary individuals gave 73 percent of the money donated to U.S. charities in 2010 - more than $200 billion. What makes Americans so generous?

It is Tuesday morning and cars line up at the Salvation Army Center in Alexandria, Virginia. Maria and Ingrid are donating some things they don’t use any more.

“I feel awful - there are a lot of the clothes, which were never worn," said Maria, one of the donors. "I don`t want to throw them away. They are in such good shape. I figured someone can use them,” said Maria.
“Partly it is selfishly getting rid of the things we don't need from our house but also recognizing that people could still use them," said Ingrid, the other donor. "Rather than putting them in the trash and filling up a landfill, it seems that they can go to good use.”

Eugenius Downey, a supervisor at the drop-in center, is happy to show off the donation and sorting facilities.

“The most unusual item I have seen is a helicopter that was donated about 10 days ago," said Downey. "Working, four-foot-long scaled model helicopter with full propellers and motors, it was remote-controlled.”

So why do people give? Part of it is because they're allowed to deduct the value of their donations from their taxable income.

“There are some people who give because of the tax incentives that are there,” said Salvation Army Major George Hood, but he does not think that's the main reason.

“Mostly, I think the American public helps because they want to reach out and help someone who they know is in trouble,” he added.

Hood says the tradition of generosity has deep roots in U.S. culture. And he says charities and community projects provide like-minded people with a chance to connect and build personal bonds.

Ingrid, for example, says her family volunteers at their church and goes on missions abroad. She agrees that developing relationships with others is important for her.

“Not only do you have the closeness of serving side by side with somebody else but also you get to meet people that you probably never meet,” said Ingrid.

Hood says Americans are quick to help victims of disaster - and even quicker to help any cause where children are involved.

“Especially, during the Christmas season they love to donate clothes and toys to needy children," he said. "They love to come and be at the donation center and they love to give up those gifts and they love to see faces of mothers and children who receive those gifts.”

Salvation Army Major George Hood says the recent recession has affected charities, but only to a degree.

“It's a mystery, which I haven't figured out yet," he said. "The normal giving throughout the year declined by about 6 percent for each of the last three years. But during the Christmas season when we bell-ringers on the streets with a red kettle that contribution has gone up 25 percent.”

In addition to money and used items, Americans also donate their time as volunteers. Last year, more than 64 million Americans worked as a volunteers - almost 27 percent of the entire U.S. population.