updated 12/8/2008 11:58:38 AM ET 2008-12-08T16:58:38

U.S. charitable foundations gave money to international causes at record levels in 2007 and their contributions are likely to increase again this year, says a report by an organization that monitors philanthropy.

International giving by U.S. foundations totaled about $5.4 billion last year, according to the report released Thursday by the New York-based Foundation Center.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation accounted for more than half the increase in foundation giving to international causes between 2002 and 2006, said the report, which documents trends in giving based on grants awarded by more than 1,000 of the largest U.S. foundations.

International giving by all foundations rose by more than 50 percent during that time. The Gates Foundation, the nation's largest, contributed $2 billion internationally in 2006, nearly four times the amount it gave in 2002.

Apart from the Gates contributions, international charity still grew faster than all foundation giving during the period of the study.

"The continued growth of international grant making by U.S. foundations is not just a product of the Gates Foundation," Foundation Center President Brad Smith said.

International causes benefited from increased funding by new foundations, more international giving by foundations with growing endowments and foundation response to natural and humanitarian disasters around the world.

The biggest concentration of international giving by U.S. foundations went to health-related causes — the Gates Foundation's top grantmaking priority. If Gates is pulled out of the equation, the top international priority of all other U.S. foundations is global development, followed by the environment.

'Making decisions with their hearts'
International development — focusing on such needs as agriculture and community building — is a major new grant area for the Gates Foundation. Foundation officials say their giving in this area will continue to grow.

Foundation support for U.S.-based international programs targeted sub-Saharan Africa, growing from $94.8 million in 2002 to $518.7 million in 2006, mostly because of large health initiatives of the Gates Foundation.

Asked about the economic downturn, only 7 percent of the charitable foundations that responded said they expected to reduce their international support in 2008, while close to half said they expected to increase giving.

"A lot of people are making decisions with their hearts rather than their wallets, and this isn't a time to cut back on giving," Smith said.

The Foundation Center and its study partner, the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Foundations, noted that the growth of international giving by U.S. foundations reflects the changing world and the newer generation of givers, many of whom made their money at international corporations.

"It's becoming increasingly difficult to draw borders around problems," Smith said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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