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Americans are good at making money -- but we're also good at giving it away.

In 2011, we came in first place as far as generous nations go in the Charities Aid Foundation's World Giving Index. However, in recent years we've slipped.

Australia took the cake for giving in 2012, followed by Ireland, Canada, and New Zealand. The U.S. came in fifth place.

America's charitable giving can be emotional, highly variable, and downright astonishing. Here are the facts, as well as tips on how to be an effective philanthropist.

Who's Most and Least Generous

The World Giving Index takes a survey-based approach and, according to the survey, 42 percent of Americans said they'd volunteered in the last year, 57 percent reported donating money, and 71 percent reported helping a stranger.

But not all Americans give equally. The Chronicle of Philanthropy has crunched numbers on charitable deductions data, and the results are fascinating. Mormon tithing seems to lifted Utah -- the average household gives away 10.6 percent of its discretionary income, the highest level in the nation. It's no single state fluke, either. More religious parts of the U.S. are also more generous. And a new study released in October found that 23 percent of Jewish Americans include charities in their wills -- almost twice the percentage of non-Jews.

Politics also appear to correlate to charitable giving. The eight most giving states all voted for John McCain in the last presidential election, while the seven least charitable states voted for Barack Obama.

And don't let anyone tell you Southern hospitality isn't real. Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee follow close behind Utah's first place, while Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire bring up the rear.

But The Chronicle's most intriguing numbers come from an examination of our nation's richest and poorest neighborhoods. Of the wealthiest 1,000 ZIP codes, only nine of them also appeared on the top 1,000 list for share of income donated.

Interestingly, households earning more than $200,000 a year that are clustered in wealthy neighborhoods are less generous with their paychecks than average. While they accounted for 41 percent of total charitable donations, that absolute number only adds up to 2.8 percent of discretionary income. That's lower than the overall giving rate in 98.9 percent of all but four of the country's 344 metropolitan areas.

Making It Count -- for You and the World

How much you give is only part of the equation of making donation dollars really make a difference. "Every little bit helps" isn't necessarily true when it comes to charities. There are plenty of ineffective organizations out there, and some that are so inefficient with the money they raise that they're may be causing more harm than good.

Identifying responsible charities can be tricky, but it's worth the work. Pick your charities like you pick your stocks -- excellent management, effective strategy, and long-term value added for all stakeholders are three signs of a solid organization. Charitynavigator.org is a good starting point, but firsthand experience or advice from a trusted friend can often go just as far.

Tax-deductible donations are a nice draw, and investors can make their stocks go further by chalking off the full amount of earnings to charities -- without having to deduct capital gains.

Start Making a Contribution

While the richest Americans may be able to give more on a dollar-for-dollar basis, you can start with any amount. Allocating a specific percentage of your income, no matter what size, is a surefire way to start making a difference.

Some folks feel the urge to give back to their communities, while others look abroad at the global inequalities that exist. You might have a connection to something that's affected you or a friend, or perhaps you feel strongly about a statistic that strikes you as being unjust. Whether it's people, places, or problems in general, there are plenty of opportunities.

Also, giving doesn't have to mean money. While it's not tax-deductible, volunteering your time and expertise can sometimes go even further. Not everyone's in a position to donate funds, and lending a helping hand can move mountains for some organizations.

The U.S. may have slumped to fifth place in last year's World Giving Index, but we've got every ability to make up lost ground. Find what works for you, stick to a strategy, and do your part to make some surprising statistics for next year's report.



You can follow Motley Fool contributor Justin Loiseau on Twitter @TMFJLo and on Motley Fool CAPS @TMFJLo.


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42 Comments

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drbobdez

There are two ways we can look at the subject: first, through the lens of the tax code, and second, as plain old charity. You know, “voluntarily giving help to those in need.” If we stick with the latter notion, a charitable contribution could take the form of time (volunteerism), money, and non-cash contributions.
The article did not touch on time so this might be a good place to start. In 2012, about 26.5% of Americans volunteered a median 50 hours on behalf of others. About one-third of all hours were related to religion and 14% to community and social services.
The cash/non-cash split for contributions was about 80%/20% with the non-cash part being more of a tax issue than a charitable consideration. Investment grade contributions can be deducted at fair market value, which, in most cases is considerably higher than the out-of-pocket, original cost. Castoffs are valued at less than original cost. How did that go down in 2012? Investment grade contributions (everything from stocks to art work) represented 3.3% of the donors and 68.6% of the value of all non-cash donations. (about 45% of this was corporate stock). About 86% of the donors gave castoffs (clothing, household items, etc.) representing 22.7% of the donations (60% clothing). About 2% of donors gave food worth 1.9% of the total non-cash contributions. I leave it to you to decide whether “give it away” versus “throw it away” or maximizing an income tax strategy meets your criteria for charity.
I could not dig up the pure cash data so you can adjust the following by the 80/20 rule. Individuals gave about 73% of all charitable contributions followed by foundations (about 14%). Remember, “corporations are people too?” They were good for 4.9%. Again, religion related recipients got just under one-third of the loot, followed by education (13%), and human services (11.9%). Total giving amounted to just over $298 billion.
For those of you who want to see politics in all this I refer you to the tax returns at http://www.taxhistory.org/www/website.nsf/Web/PresidentialTaxReturns. It seems the Obamas donated some $567,239 over the past three years (averaging 18.14% of their AGI) to 33 charities. The majority went to the Fisher House that provides scholarships to the children of disabled and fallen veterans. At this same point in the Bush administration (2002-2004), the Bush family gave $216, 070 or an average of 8.77% of their AGI. Contrary to a statement below, the Bidens average about $5350 per year. Whereas the past two presidents saw their income decline during their years of service the same cannot be said of Dick Cheney. His income went up 48% his last three years in office. You can check out Romney/Ryan and McCain/ Palin for yourself. All this notwithstanding, the key word here is charity—it is a personal thing and not incumbent upon any of us to say what someone else should give.

November 13 2013 at 2:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Cindy

I give to my favorite charities. The number one charity is Muscular Dystrophy. It killed both my brothers. And I donate clothes to the Salvation Army.. I have given to Make a Wish and other children's charities, especially Ronald Mc Donald House.
But I don't give to every charity. I rarely give to school sports whose kids are pushy when I come out of the supermarket.
I want to decide who to donate to and will not donate anything when someone tries to push me into it.

November 13 2013 at 9:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
wjs27skeet

In 2011, we came in first place as far as generous nations go in the Charities Aid Foundation's World Giving Index. However, in recent years we've slipped." Oh really, I just saw where the US is sending millions to The Phillipines after their Typhoon damage, and the US sent an Aircraft Carrier to aid in medical and supplies. not to mention the private US Chairties, So Austrailia and Ireland send more???, yea sure.

November 13 2013 at 8:53 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
drepke

As the report clearly points out, as did those who ran from persident tax returns showed, the Liberals give the least and Republicans give the most. The basic difference in ideaology, is the Liberals believe the Government should be the organ that everything flows from. A Republican believes that people are the center of our existance and everything should flow from them. How makes the wiser choices the Government or the people?

November 13 2013 at 7:52 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to drepke's comment
maceandemma

Surprise, surprise, someone who hates liberals jumps to a conclusion....

"A study by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University found that the residents of New Hampshire -- which ranked dead last in both surveys by The Chronicle -- weren't stingy; they were simply nonbelievers.

When religious giving isn't counted, the geography of giving is very different. Some states in the Northeast would jump into the top 10 when secular gifts alone are counted. New York would vault from No. 18 to No. 2 in the rankings, and Pennsylvania would climb from No. 40 to No. 4.

"New Hampshire gives next to nothing to religious organizations," says Patrick Rooney, the center's leader, "but their secular giving is identical to the rest of country."'

November 13 2013 at 10:31 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Hi Den

I will never give another dime to any charities. Sorry, but with 45 million on the dole, I give a great deal through my taxes and that's enough.

November 13 2013 at 1:05 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Keith

Consistently, America has always given a fraction in donations to national disasters compared to most other nations, yet they spend like there's no end when it comes to stockpiling bombs and weapons. -Priorities, can you see?

November 13 2013 at 12:58 AM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Keith's comment
jrb359

World peace by way of superior firepower! Maybe if we gave entitlements to those that deserve instead of to those that feel they are owed, we would have more money for other things.

November 13 2013 at 6:22 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Michael Fitzgerald

You confuse governmental aid with private giving. Americans continue to be quite exceptional. http://notyourdaddy.wordpress.com/2008/02/27/most-generous-nation/

November 13 2013 at 8:55 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Neil

its what you give while your living,leaving in a will you give nothing!

November 13 2013 at 12:05 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Stephen

Not all Americans give equally, because not all Americans have equal incomes. However, I really doubt that there are any other people in any other lands that are more kinder, thoughtful and generous (especially charitable) than Americans.

November 12 2013 at 10:51 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
mrck922

Americans are the most charitable of all countries. That's why I resent being forced to give against my will by my government. I suggest a new law be passed wherein I have a line item veto on my tax return for some of the bone headed crap that they decide to spend my hard earned money on.

November 12 2013 at 7:29 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
ccdae5

I gave on April 15th !

November 12 2013 at 7:02 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ccdae5's comment
jrb359

Liberals celebrate that day like we celebrate the 4th of July!

November 13 2013 at 6:25 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jrb359's comment
maceandemma

Republican states receive more in taxes than they pay out:

http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2012/jan/26/blog-posting/red-state-socialism-graphic-says-gop-leaning-state/

http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_reckoning/2012/10/25/blue_state_red_face_guess_who_benefits_more_from_your_taxes.html

November 13 2013 at 3:15 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down