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As much as Americans waste, Americans also give. Last year was the best ever for charitable giving according to a group that has tracked donations for 60 years. And that says something about our economy. People are feeling more secure about their own fortunes. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Americans gave more than $358 billion to charity last year, a historic high and a big increase from just a few years ago, says Keith Curtis, chairman of the Giving USA Foundation.
KEITH CURTIS: And I think much of that increase that we're seeing is based really on what was a healthier economy as we came out of the great recession.
FESSLER: A recession that brought a big dip in giving in 2008 and 2009. But over the last few years, donations have been growing steadily back to prerecession levels. Curtis says when people feel good about the economy they give, and last year, contributions grew in almost every area - education, the arts, health, the environment and human services.
MONSIGNOR JOHN ENZLER: We've had a phenomenal increase in donations over the last four years.
FESSLER: Monsignor John Enzler is president and CEO of Catholic Charities in the Washington, D.C., area. He says their donations grew from more than $2 million in 2009 to more than $10 million last year. Enzler thinks it's due in part to the region's strong economy.
ENZLER: But also I think, frankly, we've taken a much stronger approach to asking people to help us. Much more, I think, telling the story better what we're trying to accomplish, trying to help people understand why the needs are there.
FESSLER: And, indeed, many nonprofits have become a lot more aggressive in recent years, trying to make the case to donors that their support is crucial, especially in bad times. Elizabeth Boris is director of the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute.
ELIZABETH BORIS: It's been a really difficult time for many charities because other sources of revenue have also been flat, you know, government grants and contracts perhaps fee-for-service, so it's a been a rough haul.
FESSLER: So she's encouraged that donations are finally up. She notes that corporate giving rose almost 12 percent last year.
BORIS: Corporations are doing quite well, so it's about time.
FESSLER: There was also a big increase in foundation giving to almost $54 billion. Giving USA released the new numbers, along with Indiana University's School of Philanthropy. They note that there were also several so-called mega-gifts last year. Those are donations of $200 million or more by wealthy individuals, such as Bill and Melinda Gates, who gave almost $2 billion to the Gates Foundation. Keith Curtis says many of the big donors are high-tech entrepreneurs.
CURTIS: And some of them are young and they are making those decisions to give back, and when they're giving, they're giving significant gifts.
FESSLER: He hopes that inspires other young people to at least give what they can. Curtis says it's also up to charities to convince future donors that their dollars will be well spent. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
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