Rich give to charity, but in moderation

Value Judgments

Your Money


IF YOU'RE supposed to give until it hurts, the McMansion set may have a lower pain threshold than the rest of us.

A new analysis of tax records shows affluent households with investment assets ranging from $1.7 million to $46 million donated less than one-half of 1 percent in 2001, while those with smaller and larger nest eggs donated at least an average of 1 percent.

NewTithing Group of San Francisco conducted the study to urge more upper-middle class and wealthy Americans to tie their charitable giving to their investment portfolios rather than to income alone.

If the affluent group - people having between $200,000 and $10 million in adjusted gross income - had given as high a percentage of their investment wealth as the other groups, total individual contributions to charity would have been nearly $42 billion higher, NewTithing estimates. That would have boosted overall giving by 23 percent.

The additional billions "could have gone to work strengthening our communities or improving the lot of those in need," said NewTithing's founder, Claude Rosenberg.

Beth Rodriguez, a J.P. Morgan wealth adviser in Chicago, said, "People in this range are just now changing their minds about whether they're merely affluent or really wealthy. They aren't ready to go from giving $25,000 a year to a couple of million in a major planned-giving program."

NewTithing noted that most categories of the wealthy households did give steadily higher percentages of income to charity. And in an interview, Rosenberg took pains not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

"I realize this is hard to assess from afar," he said. Donation levels can be a highly personal affair. Rosenberg himself was reticent to discuss details of his own giving levels.

So, how do we know if we're giving enough?

Ice cream entrepreneurs Ben and Jerry devoted 2 percent of corporate profits toward world peace initiatives. Some religious organizations urge members to tithe, giving 10 percent of income.

At, the organization suggests giving levels based on income and assets, as well as strategies for getting the best charity-related tax deductions.

To see how the two leading presidential candidates stack up to Americans in their income brackets, I punched their financial disclosures into the NewTithing Web site. (Direct comparisons between the two are impossible because Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry files a separate income tax return from his wealthy wife, philanthropist Teresa Heinz Kerry.)

President Bush and his wife, Laura, claimed $68,360 in contributions on adjusted gross income of $822,126 last year. That's an impressive 8 percent, far higher than the 2.82 percent national average that the 2001 study found for households earning between $500,000 and $1 million.

The Center for Public Integrity reports the couple's non-real estate assets within the range of $6.3 million to $19.4 million. At the midpoint of that range, roughly $12.9 million, they would have had to donate only about $55,000 to keep pace with giving levels in their income group.

But with the president's income and assets, NewTithing suggests donating a whopping 2 percent of total assets, or $258,000 on the $12.9 million. Donate appreciated assets rather than cash and try other tax-saving strategies, and you can tack on roughly another $200,000 without depleting your total assets any further, the organization claims.

The center values Kerry's portion of the couple's wealth between $725,000 and $2.4 million. Last month, he reported $43,735 in charitable contributions on income of $395,338. That far outpaces average Americans' giving and even surpasses the aggressive recommendations on the NewTithing Web site.

Where does your own giving fit in this picture? Before getting too bogged down in formulas, experts advise starting with a mission, not a dollar figure.

Rosenberg said, "People aren't getting their kicks out of philanthropy. They should be thinking about what's meaningful to them and writing down those priorities."

E-mail Janet Kidd Stewart at

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