updated 6/25/2007 3:03:42 AM ET 2007-06-25T07:03:42

Americans gave nearly $300 billion to charitable causes last year, setting a new record and besting the 2005 total that had been boosted by a surge in aid to victims of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma and the Asian tsunami.

Donors contributed an estimated $295.02 billion in 2006, a 1 percent increase when adjusted for inflation, up from $283.05 billion in 2005. Excluding donations for disaster relief, the total rose 3.2 percent, inflation-adjusted, according to an annual report released Monday by the Giving USA Foundation at Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropy.

Giving historically tracks the health of the overall economy, with the rise amounting to about one-third the rise in the stock market, according to Giving USA. Last year was right on target, with a 3.2 percent rise as stocks rose more than 10 percent on an inflation-adjusted basis.

Individual donors
“What people find especially interesting about this, and it’s true year after year, that such a high percentage comes from individual donors,” Giving USA Chairman Richard Jolly said.

Individuals gave a combined 75.6 percent of the total. With bequests, that rises to 83.4 percent. The biggest chunk of the money, $96.82 billion or 32.8 percent, goes to religious organizations. The second largest slice, $29.56 billion or 13.9 percent, goes to education, including gifts to colleges, universities and libraries.

About 65 percent of households with incomes less than $100,000 give to charity, the report showed.

“It tells you something about American culture that is unlike any other country,” said Claire Gaudiani, a professor at NYU’s Heyman Center for Philanthropy and author of “The Greater Good: How Philanthropy Drives the American Economy and Can Save Capitalism.” Gaudiani said the willingness of Americans to give cuts across income levels, and their investments go to developing ideas, inventions and people to the benefit of the overall economy.

Gaudiani said Americans give twice as much as the next most charitable country, according to a November 2006 comparison done by the Charities Aid Foundation. In philanthropic giving as a percentage of gross domestic product, the U.S. ranked first at 1.7 percent. No. 2 Britain gave 0.73 percent, while France, with a 0.14 percent rate, trailed such countries as South Africa, Singapore, Turkey and Germany.

Mega-gifts
Mega-gifts, which Giving USA considers to be donations of $1 billion or more, tend to get the most attention, and that was true last year especially.

Investment superstar Warren Buffett announced in June 2006 that he would give $30 billion over 20 years to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Of that total, $1.9 billion was given in 2006, which helped push the year’s total higher.

Gaudiani said that gift reflects a growing focus on using donated money efficiently and effectively.

“I think it’s also a strategic commitment to upward mobility exported to other countries, in the form of improved health and stronger civil societies,” she said.

The Gates Foundation has focused on reducing hunger and fighting disease in developing countries as well as improving education in the U.S. Without Buffett’s pledge, it had an endowment of $29.2 billion as of the end of 2005.

Meanwhile, companies and their foundations gave less in 2006, dropping 10.5 percent to $12.72 billion. Jolly said corporate giving fell because companies had been so generous in response to the natural disasters and because profits overall were less strong in 2006 over the year before.

The Giving USA report counts money given to foundations as well as grants the foundations make to nonprofits and other groups, since foundations typically give out only income earned without spending the original donations.

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