From super-rich celebrities to people of moderate means, charitable givers are again digging deeper and donating more.
Actors Paul Newman and Leonardo DiCaprio and Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, for example, have helped raise or given away substantial sums of money this year for charitable causes.
But so too have scores of average Americans, reflecting the strong US economy, low inflation, the absence of major global conflict, and the general atmosphere of goodwill prevailing within the United States.
Every holiday season for the past few years, for example, Seattle homemaker Kay Curtis has increased her charitable giving. This year is no exception. In fact, she decided to substantially boost the amount she normally contributes - to solicitations sent through the mail, "such as Boys Town USA," as well as to Salvation Army street-corner "bell ringers."
Meantime, across the country, Diane Goodwin, a working mother of two in the New York area, is looking for ways to "do more this year."
"I give to the United Way through two jobs I work, plus groups such as the Salvation Army," she says.
But this year she also plans to help underwrite a food line sponsored by a neighborhood church. "I can't give much, but I'll do what I can," she says. "And it's not just me.... I know that many of my friends are giving more as well."
Not only is charitable giving up this year because of favorable economic conditions and an unusually large number of natural disasters, but also because of increasingly sophisticated ways of soliciting people for contributions, says Roberta d'Eustachio, who publishes Giving magazine, based in London and New York.
Charitable solicitation is now "a profession," she says, noting that some 88 percent of contributions come from private individuals. Corporations and philanthropic organizations provide the remainder.
Given technological advances in the collection process - including the rise of the Internet, which lowers costs for charities - "everyone is now a potential target" for donations, Ms. d'Eustachio says.
Total giving for 1999 should be in excess of $180 billion, up from $175 billion last year, says Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy (AIP).
"When times are good, such as now, people tend to give more," says Ann Kaplan, editor of Giving USA.
Currently, total contributions by individuals tend to equal about 2 percent of US gross domestic product. But much of that comes from high-wealth individuals, such as Bill Gates, whose contributions run into the billions of dollars.
Ms. Kaplan, and many others within the charitable arena, urge individuals to donate based on their total asset value, rather than their income level.
That goal was widely broached at a recent White House conference on philanthropy, in October, the first such "official" conference ever held. "If individuals gave up to 5 percent of their asset value, as philanthropic organizations do, charitable contributions would quickly reach 9 percent of GDP, instead of the current range of around 2 percent," Kaplan says.
Most large national philanthropic organizations, as well as some lesser known groups, now have Internet sites that provide information on giving. According to a number of analysts, the rise of the Internet has provided a boost to large national charitable organizations, compared with smaller groups who may not yet be online.
The Internet has also made it more imperative that individuals be alert to potential fraud, says Mr. Borochoff. "Just about anyone can throw up a Web site and call themselves a charity, even someone operating from offshore" (outside the US), he says.
Just counting the established philanthropic organizations, there are some 620,000 to 690,000 charities in the US.
But only about 220,000 file federally required tax-identification forms with the Internal Revenue Service, Form 990.
"Individuals need to be as informed as possible about exactly whom they are dealing with, especially on the Internet," when contributing to a charity, says Bennett Weiner, an official with the Council of Better Business Bureaus, in Arlington, Va.
"On the positive side, the Internet provides opportunities for raising charitable contributions at low cost," Mr. Weiner says.
"It also provides a way for donors to learn more about the background of legitimate charities," he says.
But on the downside, the Internet can allow the unscrupulous to bilk money from the well-meaning but uninformed.
Among the tips suggested by Mr. Weiner:
*Be wary of online shopping sites that promise to donate a percentage of sales to charity. Weiner says to avoid vague promises. And make certain there are specific conditions spelled out for such contributions and that the sales company has the permission of the charity. Also, remember, in general, "these purchases are not tax deductible," as would be the case with an outright gift to a charity.
*If you contribute to a "charity" through the Internet, make certain the site has standardized encryption techniques designed to privately register your credit card and other personal information.
*Chain mail requests for donations over the Internet are more often than not suspect, Weiner says.
Finally, d'Eustachio, of Giving magazine, urges individuals to spread out contributions throughout the year, thus being as generous to charitable needs in, say, March, or June, or October, as at the year-end holiday season.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society