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Why we can all be philanthropists

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TESS VIGELAND: We talked earlier in the show about the Fifty Percent Club, folks who give away half of their earnings, because it’s a good thing to do. Given the current economy, you might think that only those with the big bucks can afford philanthropy.

Commentator Matthew Bishop urges us to think again.

Matthew Bishop: Billionaire philanthro-capitalists like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are given away their fortunes to wage war on America’s failing schools and killing diseases like malaria.

But what can the rest of us do? Those of us who only have a fistful of dollars to give. Bill Gates can make a difference. But can we? Really?

The good news this giving season is more than ever before, that yes we can. The total amount of money given by ordinary people dwarfs the donations of the super rich. Now, thanks to some recent online innovations, our giving can have a much bigger impact than it used to.

If you wrote a check or signed a petition, it used to be hit-or-miss affair. Who knew where the money went or if the signature was ever read? Now, if you care about Africa, you can help an entrepreneur through Or if you want to help Asians fight climate change, click on Or if you want to help American teachers do better in the classroom, you can go to Donors Choose.

What these Web sites offer is new and exciting ways for donors to see exactly how their money makes the world a better place. Take Donors Choose, for example. You decide what you want to buy — new history textbooks maybe, or computers, or perhaps sports equipment, whatever matters most to you. You could also decide whether to give locally, or to another school in a poor neighborhood on the other side of the country.

Through donations as small as $25, Donors Choose has already helped 100,000 projects and touched millions of young lives. And you get a report back from the classroom, so you know exactly how your money has made a difference. Experienced givers love the way they can now take control of their giving. Even better, these new Web sites have inspired thousands of first-time givers too. More money, making a bigger difference. What’s not to love?

So this giving season, it is not just Bill Gates who knows he’s making the world a better place. We all can.

Vigeland: Matthew Bishop is the New York bureau chief for the Economist magazine. His book is called “Philanthrocapitalism: How Giving Can Save the World.”

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