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The new face of giving
A charity that provides water to African villages posts locations of new wells using Google Earth, and a 13-year-old contributor in Manhattan tracks the progress.

A cancer charity accepts "micro-donations" of $5 by text message.

An orchestra in Michigan begins posting videos of its performances on YouTube to try to draw patrons.

The United States long has been a nation of givers, but a new generation is transforming the way we do good. Millennials and Generation Xers, especially those 20- and 30-somethings starting careers, may not have the bucks to be major donors, but they are finding ways to help others and prompting big changes in the way charities raise money.

Young people are "not just making checks and going on with their lives. They want to be part of what happens" to their money, says Claire Gaudiani of the Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising at New York University. She says today's young people contribute to favorite causes earlier, more consistently and in more imaginative ways than their grandparents did.

Last year, donations from people of all ages and wallet sizes exceeded $300 billion for the first time, according to the Giving USA Foundation, which tracks philanthropy. Three of four dollars donated came from individuals; the rest were from corporations, foundations and charitable bequests. A 2006 study by the Charities Aid Foundation, a British philanthropic organization, found that Americans donate more per person than any other nation.

"It's part of our culture to be generous. We take it very seriously," says Gaudiani, noting that 89% of Americans gave to the March of Dimes over decades to help suppress polio in the 20th century.

Charitable giving usually dips during recessions, but it doesn't fall as sharply as the economy. "People who are able to give more will double what they gave last year, knowing others won't" be able to contribute, she says.

Religious congregations get a third of all contributions, although their share is shrinking, says Del Martin, chairwoman of Giving USA. In 1967, nearly half of all charitable dollars went to faith groups.

Two of the fastest-growing types of charities, those with causes relevant to international affairs and the environment, weren't even tracked by Giving USA 40 years ago. Now, they top the list for donors in their 20s and 30s.

"We're seeing a tremendous increase in awareness of international issues since 9/11," says Marshall Burke of the international relief agency CARE. Most philanthropic impulses remain local, but young people "are aware that the human community is getting smaller and smaller and we have an obligation to reach out beyond ourselves."

The digital money trail

The Internet has made that easier. When an earthquake hit Peru last year, the anti-hunger group Oxfam America blasted e-mail appeals to 400,000 people within 24 hours. The digital plea raised $355,000 within days, a sharp contrast to mailed appeals that used to take as long as 10 days to reach potential donors. "That was a lot more expensive, and it took so long that the information was already out-of-date by the time the people received it," says Stephanie Kurzina, an Oxfam vice president. "Now we're able to tell them what's going on and, even more important, we can keep them informed of what's being done."

Letting donors follow their money was a key part of the strategy when Scott Harrison started two years ago to drill freshwater wells in developing nations from Liberia to Bangladesh. The group's website tracks its projects through videos and written stories from the field, Google maps and testimonials from donors. So far, Charitywater's website says it has funded 624 projects providing fresh water to 250,000 people in 12 countries. Harrison says 100% of contributions go to the needy, thanks to overhead support from a few sponsors and corporations.

"A lot of people have questions about how much of their money will actually reach people in need," says Harrison, 32, a former New York nightclub promoter who left that "selfish life" to devote himself to the poor. "We're trying to really restore people's faith" in charities, he says. "People I talk to in their 20s and 30s feel they've been burned. They don't know what happens to the money."

Charities tune in to the young

Josh Hofing is only 13 but chose Charitywater for a social action project for his Jewish coming-of-age ceremony because "I know the money is actually going to go to what I want it to go to. It's not going to a big, combined project. It's going to my own project."

For months before his September bar mitzvah, he followed construction of a well in Ethiopia on the group's website and was able to describe it as he sold black rubber Charitywater bracelets in a park near his Manhattan home. He also raised money at a read-a-thon. In all, Josh collected more than $4,100 for the project. He plans to donate 10% of his bar mitzvah gifts and hopes one day to visit the well in person.

Many non-profit organizations are using cyberspace to connect with the next generation of benefactors. Boston's Museum of Fine Arts has more than 2,500 "fans" on its Facebook page. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has posted dozens of performance videos on YouTube to reach out to patrons. In Michigan, the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra started tapping the power of YouTube in February.

"It's becoming more and more apparent with our future donors that we're going to reach them electronically," Ann Arbor's development director Guy Barast says.

Still, only 6% of all households gave online last year, according to Giving USA. A Commerce Department survey from last October shows 62% of households use the Internet at home.

Patrick Rooney of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University says the Internet is mostly for "entry-level fundraising. … You're not going to go to them and say, 'Give us $10,000' " online.

The growing use of e-mail, websites and credit cards to make donations may cost less than regular mail, but fundraisers warn against moving too fast toward paperless philanthropy.

"You have to be careful not to lose donors who are not comfortable with that or not trusting," says Christine Benero, president of Mile High United Way in Denver. "We're at a tipping point, but we haven't tipped yet that we can walk away from traditional methods."

Technology is gaining fast on tradition, though. One of the newest tools to raise small donations is text messaging. Already popular in Europe, the mobile moneymaker made its U.S. debut in February when viewers of the Super Bowl were asked in a 10-second commercial to text a $5 donation, which would later appear on their phone bill, to United Way. The charity said the promotion raised about $10,000. In July, fans at Major League Baseball's All-Star Game in Yankee Stadium were asked in a scoreboard appeal to text message a code to donate $5 to Stand Up To Cancer, a research initiative. Other Major League ballparks had similar appeals through the season.

It also is showing up at concerts. Singer Alicia Keys raised more than $40,000 to combat AIDS in Africa by asking fans during her recent tour, which ended in June, to donate $5 on their cellphones, according to the charity Keep a Child Alive.

Jim Manis started the Mobile Giving Foundation in Bellevue, Wash., in 2006 to get wireless companies to pass along donations made by texting.

Texting appeals to young adults underrepresented among givers, he says. "It's a great medium for an impulse gift."

Giving circles: A pivotal trend

One trend does depend on old-fashioned face-to-face gatherings. As many as 1,000 giving circles have formed in the past three years to focus on causes their members decide on.

Members pool dollars for grants to local groups or projects, says Linetta Gilbert, who works in community philanthropy at the Ford Foundation. She says the groups are most popular with women and minorities "closest to the challenges" in their neighborhoods. Members agree to contribute $100 to $1,000 a year to projects they choose.

A group of men in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area of North Carolina formed A Legacy of Tradition (ALOT) to help men released from prison avoid going back. The circle worked to change state laws that barred ex-cons from being barbers and then gave barber school scholarships and help finding them jobs. Since 2006, the group has helped more than 40 men stay out of prison.

"People are looking for ways to connect to others around problem-solving in their communities," Gilbert says.

Whether it's helping rebuild houses after Hurricane Katrina or serving as literacy coaches at the local elementary school, young donors "would rather be volunteering than sitting at a luncheon," Benero says.

United Way of America's website,, not only lets people donate online but tells them how to advocate and volunteer in the areas of education, health and poverty.

By narrowing its focus to three things, United Way is part of a broader trend by charities and donors to specialize.

"The yardstick we are measuring ourselves by is not so much dollar values but where are we moving the needle in terms of social conditions," says Rick Belous, vice president for research of United Way of America. "There's more of an investment mentality."

And the push for returns on donations makes it "more complicated to raise money," says Roche Schulfer, executive director of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. As more wealthy patrons demand to see measurable results from their contributions, he says, it becomes more difficult to stage avant-garde plays.

Schulfer often tells donors to think of themselves as theatrical venture capitalists. They might fund 10 projects but should consider themselves fortunate if only three work out.

All of which, says Martin of Giving USA, takes time to explain and points to the perennial bottom line of fundraising, even in an Internet age.

"The most successful way to raise money," she says, "is still in person — one person asking another person."

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