Every year during the holiday season, Kay Johnson, a Seattle homemaker, digs into her pockets and contributes as "much as possible" to the Salvation Army.
She and her married daughter passed a bell-ringer the other day, slipped money into a collection box, and were startled when the collector said, "Thanks again. I remember you folks from last year."
In New York, meantime, Josephine and Marion Teresi, another mother and daughter, contribute "all that we can" to the St. Francis of Assisi Church bread line on West 31st Street.
And businessman Tom Fuller writes year-end checks to "many, many charities."
These folks are far from alone in opening their hearts - and pocketbooks - to the needy. Thanks to a booming economy, high employment, and rising personal income, Americans - already the world's top charitable givers - will likely give more to the less fortunate this season, experts say. That's good news for thousands of philanthropic causes that depend on such generosity.
Last year, Americans gave $151 billion to charities. And most of it came from individuals, who put a $121 billion price tag on generosity, far more than the $30 billion from corporations, foundations, and the like. The total represents about 2 percent of the nation's household income, roughly equal to levels of the past few decades.
"The total amount could be slightly higher" this year, says Ann Kaplan, research director at the American Association of Fund-Raising Counsel Trust for Philanthropy in New York.
That depends on what happens during the holidays, by far the biggest gift-giving season, as individuals rethink their responsibilities to their fellow man, and in many cases, their tax responsibilities to Uncle Sam.
Americans should have little trouble finding a charity. There may be more than a million philanthropic, nonprofit organizations operating in the US, says Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy (AIP) in Bethesda, Md.
"Some 25,000 new charities spring up annually," he says.
But giving money is only half the story. Americans also donate time generously. While two-thirds of US households contribute to charities financially, about 93 million Americans are citizen volunteers, reckons Independent Sector in Washington.
Volunteer activities range from helping the blind, as Josephine Teresi does, to building houses and repairing schools.
The groups to which one can give money or time are incredibly diverse, says Bennett Weiner of the Philanthropic Advisory Service (PAS) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, in Arlington, Va. "But that means that individual donors have a greater responsibility than ever" to avoid scams - and organizations that fail to use donations as promised, he says.
Some watchdog groups, rate charities on efficiency or certify that they meet basic standards of financial accountability. Their methods differ, and some ratings cover national headquarters but not regional affiliates.
Where the PAS calls for charities to devote at least half of income to its stated objective, the AIP looks for at least 60 percent of expenses to go to those programs. Note that, for some charities that don't put all donations to use promptly, income and expenses are far apart.
Generally, experts say a well-run charity should devote about a third of its spending to fund-raising and administration.
Still, donors should be flexible in using such guidelines, Ms. Kaplan says. "Some small or unpopular groups may need to spend a lot of money on fund-raising in their first few years. If you don't help out fledgling groups, or groups that may legitimately have high expenses, then you just wind up supporting 'ocean-liner' charities."
* For the PAS "Holiday Giving" guide, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to: Council of Better Business Bureaus, 4200 Wilson Blvd., Suite 800, Arlington, VA 22203
* For the AIP "Charity Rating Guide," send $3 to: AIP, 4905 Del Ray Ave., Suite 300, Bethesda, MD 20814.
* For the National Charities Information Bureau "Wise Giving Guide," write NCIB, Dept. 128, 19 Union Square West, New York, NY 10003.
Gifts of Choice
It's not just donors with megabucks - media mogul Ted Turner and investor George Soros - who can find fancy ways to do their giving. Here are some unusual approaches:
Charitable remainder trusts. They can be set up with as little as $10,000. The donor gets income; the principal reverts to the charity when the donor dies. The donor gets a partial, pro-rated tax deduction. Similar pooled income funds usually require $20,000 or more and are provided by charities and financial-service firms.
Lead trusts. Income goes to the charity. When the trust expires, the principal reverts to the donor or his or her heirs. For very large donations.
Endowment plans. The principal stays put, but the income goes to charity. The gift is usually fully deductible.
Donor-advised funds. Best known is the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund (800-682-4438). Donors give a minimum $10,000 up front, and the money is invested in mutual funds until donors want it distributed to charities of their choice. Almost $1 billion has been given, and half a billion distributed, since the fund opened in 1992. Several banks also offer funds, such as PNC Bank, Boston (617-443-6300), and Barnett Banks in Jacksonville, Fla. (800-944-7929).
The 50 Largest Charities Ranked by Total Income
RANK NAME, HEADQUARTERS, YEAR FOUNDED PHONE
1 YMCA of the USA, Chicago, 1851 800-872-9622
2 Catholic Charities USA, Alexandria, Va., 1910 703-549-1390
3 American Red Cross, Washington, D.C., 1881 202-737-8300
4 Salvation Army, Alexandria, Va., 1865 703-684-5500
5 Goodwill Industries International, Bethesda, Md., 1902 301-530-6500
6 Shriners Hospitals for Children, Tampa, Fla., 1922 800-237-5055
7 Boy Scouts of America, Irving, Texas, 1910 214-580-2000
8 YWCA of the USA, New York, 1906 212-614-2700
9 American Cancer Society Inc., Atlanta, 1913 404-320-3333
10 Planned Parenthood Federation of America, New York, 1916 212-541-7800
11 Girl Scouts of the USA, New York, 1912 800-223-0624
12 Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Atlanta, 1906 404-815-5700
13 National Easter Seal Society, Chicago, 1919 312-726-6200
14 CARE, Atlanta, 1945 404-681-2552
15 United Jewish Appeal Inc., New York, 1938 212-818-9100
16 Second Harvest National Food Bank Network, Chicago, 1979 312-263-2303
17 American Heart Association, Dallas, 1924 214-373-6300
18 Nature Conservancy, Arlington, Va., 1951 703-841-5300
19 Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1846 202-357-1300
20 Habitat for Humanity International, Americus, Ga., 1976 912-924-6935
21 ALSAC/St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, Memphis, 1962 800-877-5833
22 World Vision, Federal Way, Wash., 1950 206-815-1000
23 City of Hope, Los Angeles, 1913 213-626-4611
24 Campus Crusade for Christ, Orlando, 1951 407-826-2000
25 Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1870 212-879-5500
26 Gifts in Kind America, Alexandria, Va., 1984 703-836-2121
27 Catholic Relief Services, Baltimore, 1943 800-235-2772
28 AmeriCares Foundation, New Canaan, Conn., 1982 800-486-4357
29 Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, 1893 312-443-3600
30 United States Olympic Committee, Colorado Springs, Colo., 1921 719-632-5551
31 American Lung Association, New York, 1904 212-315-8700
32 March of Dimes, White Plains, N.Y., 1938 914-428-7100
33 Metropolitan Opera Association, New York, 1883 212-799-3100
34 Special Olympics International, Washington, D.C., 1968 202-628-3630
35 Natl. Assoc. for Exchange of Ind. Resources, Galesburg, Ill., 1977 309-343-0704
36 Rotary Foundation of Rotary International, Evanston, Ill., 1917 847-866-3000
37 Larry Jones Intl. Ministries/Feed the Children, Oklahoma City, 1979 405-942-0228
38 National Benevolent Association, Christian Church, St. Louis, 1887 314-993-9000
39 Disabled American Veterans, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1920 606-441-7300
40 Save the Children, Westport, Conn., 1932 800-243-5075
41 Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, Philadelphia, 1945 215-567-7000
42 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1870 617-267-9300
43 Christian Children's Fund, Richmond, Va., 1938 804-756-2700
44 Girls Incorporated, New York, 1945 212-689-3700
45 Project HOPE, Millwood, Va., 1958 540-837-2100
46 The Christian & Missionary Alliance, Colorado Springs, Colo., 1887719-599-5999
47 Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Va., 1828 757-229-1000
48 J.F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C., 1971 202-416-8000
49 National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1937 202-737-4215
50 American Museum of Natural History, New York, 1869 212-169-5100
Sources: The NonProfit Times (except where noted); The Chronicle of Philanthropy