NEW YORK (AP) While they may not have $26 billion to sock away into a foundation like Bill Gates, many of his fellow baby boomers won't settle for just writing checks to their favorite charities.
With the first wave of boomers nearing retirement, and many starting to receive inheritances from their parents, a growing number are establishing family foundations, some with endowments as small as $100,000 or $50,000.
Many with even less to work with, but still philanthropically inclined, are setting up ''virtual'' foundations opening accounts with community-based foundations and donor-advised funds that allow the individual to decide when, where and how much to contribute.
But whether or not they choose such vehicles or just donate directly to charities, experts say the increase in boomer giving fits well with the generation's approach to career, family and personal fulfillment.
Compared with their parents, boomers are ''supporting different types of charities. They tend to go for things more local or more hands-on,'' said Stacy Palmer, editor The Chronicle of Philanthropy. ''They care about things in their community and things they can have a direct involvement with.''
Carolyn Giles, for example, contributes to a wide array of causes near her home in the New York City suburb of Rockland County: her church, a local chapter of Habitat for Humanity and United Hospice, two police departments and a fire department.
''This is where I live,'' said Giles, 54, who works in regulatory affairs for a drug company. ''I try to do as much as I can locally.''
The specific trends in boomer giving can be hard to pin down statistically because most of the data collected about philanthropy is not broken down by age groups.
Still, many observers see the tide of boomer donations rising with a vast wealth tranfer from their parents. According to one widely quoted study by the Social Welfare Research Institute at Boston College, boomers are due to receive a collective inheritance of at least $7.2 trillion.
Likewise, since most Americans over 60 are nearing retirement or retired, and probably have already set out on their chosen charitable paths, much of the recent activity has been driven by boomers, experts say.
''People between 50 and 64 give more to charity than any other age group,'' said Dr. Timothy Seiler, director of the fundraising school at the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy. ''Our panel study has found that people give to charities at a higher level during that age period, and then their giving tends to slow down a little after age 65.''
That shift may help explain the strong growth of family foundations in recent years.
According to a report last month by The Foundation Center, there were nearly 30,000 family-directed charitable foundations at the end of 2002, an increase of 61 percent from 1998.
Notably, 38 percent of those family foundations had less than $250,000 in assets, and nearly two-thirds had less than $1 million in assets, the report found.
''Many of the older boomers are at a stage in their lives where they have passed the immediate pressures of (career building) and raising kids to step back and say, 'What do I want to do with my time and resources?,'' said Melissa Berman, chief executive at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, a non-profit organization that provides planning and operational assistance for family foundations and other charitable endeavors.
Similarly, the increasing popularity of community-based foundations and donor funds offered by mutual fund purveyors such as Fidelity Investments and Vanguard Group offer further indication of rising boomer activity.
There are now more than 650 community foundations, according to The Council on Foundations. These localized pools, which took in $3.2 billion in gifts during 2002, enable donors to designate local causes for grants from their accounts.
Fidelity says 27.3 percent of the contributions from its Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund in fiscal 2001-2002 were designated for ''community/human services,'' while another 22 percent went to education.
Part of the appeal of such funds is their ability to let would-be philanthropists start small. The Fidelity fund, which has built a base of 30,000 donors since its founding in 1992, requires a minimum initial contribution of $10,000 and allows donors to make grants of as little as $250.
In addition, with hundreds of thousands of charities to choose from, these funds may satiate a more more discerning boomer approach to giving.
''A benevolent sounding name and some tragic photographs simply isn't enough any more,'' said Trent Stamp, executive director of CharityNavigator.org, a Web site that provides information on 2,800 charities, grading each on different financial criteria. ''The boomers, like they have done with all of their consumer choices, have begun to research their charities ... and want to know what the charities have done, and will do, with their money.''
On the Net:
Council on Foundations: www.cof.org
The Chronicle of Philanthropy: philanthropy.com
Boston College Social Welfare Institute: www.bc.edu/research/swri
Charity Navigator: www.charitynavigator.org
BBB Wise Giving Alliance: www.give.org
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