In 2005, Americans gave $260 billion in charitable donations. A majority of that was donated by individuals just like you. Why did so many give so much? Because they cared about those less fortunate than themselves. Giving to charity is a part of the American fabric. It's a way of life.
While the donation of money is the first thing that comes to mind when discussing charity, the giving of your time and effort is equally important to America's philanthropic causes. Without employees and volunteers to carry out fundraising events, charities may be unable to offer their programs and services to those in need. If that happens, society as a whole suffers.
George Bush, in his 2002 State of the Union speech, asked every American to serve the nation by giving 4,000 hours to community charities over the course of his or her lifetime. USA Freedom Corps was set up to formalize this call to action. More than 65 million Americans took up the call in 2005, volunteering for charities close to their hearts. This is philanthropy exercised at the grass roots.
In 2006, Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank received the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in the area of microfinance. Yunus started the bank in 1976 as a research project to see if small loans given from his pocket to poor Bangladesh citizens could translate into profitable small businesses, releasing them from their poverty. While microfinance is an offshoot of banking and investing, it's still a form of philanthropy. The people who fund banks like Grameen usually don't expect anything in return for their investment, although they generally do receive payments.
America's most famous philanthropist, until recently, was Andrew Carnegie, the famous industrialist. In 1901, he sold Carnegie Steel to J.P. Morgan's U.S. Steel for $480 million. Carnegie's share of the sale was $225 million or $56 billion in 2007 dollars. He proceeded to donate most of those funds to charitable causes, most notably the 1900 or so libraries he funded around the world. He'll forever be the man who gave philanthropy a good name. Since then, people like Bill Gates and Sir Richard Branson have led the charge for modern-day industrialists.