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Jewish World Review Dec. 6, 2002 / 1 Teves, 5763

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Giving credit to young philanthropists | Americans are the most generous people on Earth. Ever.

That's always been true, and it's even truer today - despite the steady cultural whine we hear about how Americans - especially the richest ones - are a bunch of greedy, selfish, capitalist pigs who don't care about helping the poor and the sick.

Americans gave $212 billion to charity last year, according to Worth magazine's December/January cover piece, "25 Most Generous Young Americans."

That's twice as much, in inflation-adjusted dollars, as in 1980, which you can prove for yourself by looking at the colorful bar graph in Business Week's cover story, "The New Face of Philanthropy."

Both magazines clearly show that Americans - especially individuals, who account for more than 75 percent of the annual total giving - are more generous than ever and much more creative, innovative and intelligent about how, where and why they give their loot away.

Business Week's look at the "new era of philanthropy" is solid, newsy and has a strong historical theme. Think founding philanthropists Carnegie, Rockefeller and Ford.

Meanwhile, Worth's cover package shows how billionaires such as Bill Gates, eBay co-founder Jeffrey Skoll and Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Curt Schilling are not waiting until they're on their deathbeds to give away their money. Oops. Schilling isn't really a billionaire, or he'd be on the Yankees.

Worth's top 25 most generous, all under 45, are not necessarily those who have given away the most. They're philanthropists who Worth feels demonstrate special passion and commitment of their time, not just their wallets.

That evil Gates and his wife top the list, the showoffs. So far, they've given away $26 billion (a lousy 60 percent of their fortune) to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is providing free vaccines to millions of kids in Africa and India.

Worth's mini-profiles of the Top 25 are a little on the touchy-feely side for a business magazine. And although its list is suspiciously weighted with celebrities, including Angelina Jolie, Andre Agassi and Dennis Leary, it's heartening stuff.

The most valuable piece of Worth's package, however, is "The Worth 100," the magazine's info-rich, methodologically complicated, annual accounting of the charities it thinks provide the best bang for the donated buck.

Worth breaks down how much monster nonprofits such as the March of Dimes and mini-nonprofits such as the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild of Pittsburgh spend on administration, fund raising and programs. Along with basic background info on each charity are phone numbers and Web addresses.

As usual, there's a trace of class envy and pettiness in both Worth and Business Week's approaches. Zillionaires whose charity is operated privately or whose giving does not measure up as a percentage of their assets are held to suspicion or gentle shame.

And Worth's editor, Randy Jones, doesn't think $212 billion a year (which doesn't include in-kind donations of food or volunteer time) is quite enough. Americans, on average, give away less than 2 percent of their incomes, and he urges us to dig deeper.

That's a fine sentiment. But like so many who call for everyone to open their wallets ever wider, Jones forgets something. Americans' incomes already are subject to an average federal, state and local tax bite of about 40 percent, and there's nothing voluntary about it.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald