Rich or poor, charity begins one by one

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The superrich (Bill Gates, Warren Buffett) set a glittery example by giving away billions. The working poor do their share, too – by handing over a higher portion of their income to charity than wealthier folks. Wanting to help others knows no financial boundaries.

One survey shows that Americans are giving more than ever to charities, some $260 billion last year alone, about 6 percent more than the previous year. And add to that another estimated $150 billion in volunteer giving each year (valued at $18 per hour).

Dollar amounts sent to charities have risen consistently over the years. But what's changing are the ways people give. Many are getting more personally involved, carefully choosing the organizations they support.

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"Giving circles," or "charity clubs," are forming. A small group of individuals who each puts in a stake – $100, $500, $1,000. The group then does research and decides to "invest" in a charitable activity together. By combining their giving, the members multiply their impact. In turn, they enjoy the fellowship among themselves as well as the close contact they make with their charity, letting them see up close how the money is being used.

With a plethora of charitable groups based in the US today, givers have a lot of choices to consider. The first step is to pick an issue that they really care about. Websites such as GuideStar.org can help locate worthwhile charities in a wide array of fields, from feeding the hungry to battling climate change to providing education or protecting human rights.

Many people are looking beyond the big, familiar international organizations. The Catalogue for Philanthropy, at work in Boston, Washington, and some other locations, for example, provides a list of smaller, lesser known groups that zero in on specific needs.

The "young rich" – entrepreneurs who've made fortunes in high tech, for example – are trying new methods. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have set up a foundation to fund innovative solutions, including for-profit ventures that plow their profits back into the charity.

"We hope that someday this institution will eclipse Google itself in overall world impact by ambitiously applying innovation and significant resources to the largest of the world's problems," reads a statement from the young billionaires at Google.org.

Teens and young adults, who may lack money, are compensating by giving time. More than 200,000 students representing 500 colleges and universities have worked in the Gulf region over the past year helping the survivors of hurricane Katrina.

But people are acting in their own communities, too. Local food pantries and shelters need donations of food, money, or extra hands. Some families look for ways to volunteer together at a charitable organization.

"There is a natural law, a Divine law, that obliges you and me to relieve the suffering, the distressed, and the destitute," Conrad Hilton, the late hotelier and philanthropist, wrote in his will. "The practice of charity will bind us – will bind all men in one great brotherhood."

That's a thought that can be near all hearts as we go about this holiday season.

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