I've always been a strong believer in the biblical admonition that we will be judged by what we do for the least among us.
My realization that the private sector alone would not do what is necessary to overcome poverty and address America's social problems played a major role in the transformation of my political thinking. I saw that while conservative Republicans talked a good game about compassion and social responsibility, they didn't put their money where their mouths were.
I also got a window into the world of charitable giving when I discovered how much harder it is to raise money for groups and community activists trying to turn lives around than it is for fashionable museums and already well-endowed universities.
In her book "Why the Wealthy Give," sociologist Francie Ostrower described how "elites take philanthropy and adapt it into an entire way of life that serves as a vehicle for the cultural and social life of their class."
It's why we see so many charitable donations going to erect edifices that bear the donor's name. After real estate magnate A. Alfred Taubman's $30 million donation to his alma mater resulted in the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning -- joining the A. Alfred Taubman Health Care Center and the Taubman Medical Library -- I suggested that if Taubman was so fond of his name, it would be much more compassionate if he gave 3,000 homeless people $10,000 each to simply change their names to Taubman.
Overall giving to charities -- both fashionable and unfashionable -- increased in 2007, marking the first time in U.S. history charitable giving surpassed $300 billion.
And while online giving accounts for only a small percentage of that total, the Internet is definitely energizing philanthropy and changing the way that we give. According to the ePhilanthropy Foundation, online donations have skyrocketed, going from $250 million in 2000 to close to $7 billion in 2006.
Online giving has had a particularly significant impact in responding to massive crises like Katrina, the Asian tsunami, the flooding in Burma and the earthquake in China. In the wake of Katrina, for instance, 50 cents of every dollar donated was contributed online, and a third of the money raised for tsunami relief came via the Internet.
Not surprisingly, some of the most interesting things happening in e-philanthropy are being driven by young people. Facebook and MySpace have become hotbeds of charitable giving -- as have sites such as Kiva.org, SixDegrees.org, Change.org, DoSomething.org, and DonorsChoose.org.
A key element of many of these new nonprofits is that they allow donors to connect directly to those they are helping. You don't just add your contribution to a giant pool of money meant to help the faceless needy -- you can target specific individuals and watch how their lives are changed by the money you give.
The desire to lend a hand is increasingly becoming an aspect of corporate citizenship. At Google, employees are encouraged to spend up to 20 percent of their time at Google.org (aka DotOrg), the online behemoth's foundation, or working on other charitable ventures. GoodSearch.com is a Yahoo!-powered search engine which donates 50 percent of its revenue to the charities and schools designated by its users; its spin-off, GoodShop.com, is an online shopping mall that donates a percentage of each sale to user-selected charities.
Another company looking to do well by doing good is American Express, via its Members Project '08 (full transparency: AmEx is advertising the project on HuffPost). Just kicking off its second year, the Project encourages cardholders to dream up ideas for projects that will make a difference in the world. The ideas are then posted online and voted on -- with the most popular projects dividing $2.5 million.
Last year, the winning project, submitted by a doctor from Ohio, sought to reduce the 4,000 unnecessary deaths of children each day due to unsafe water. The $2 million in funding it received has brought clean drinking water to millions of children in Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, and Guinea.
America's economic downturn presents a daunting double-edged challenge to domestic charitable organizations. Hard times mean that more people than ever will be in need of help -- and that fewer people will be in a position to help.
But while in the past the burden for charitable giving fell mostly on the Bill Gateses of the world, today's technology has leveled the giving playing field. Dennis Whittle, founder of GlobalGiving, says technology has the potential to make "all donors equal in the eyes of philanthropy" and turn us all into "ordinary Oprahs": "If you have $10 or $100 or $1,000," he says, "you can come [online], find a school in Africa to support, and you can get updates from the field to get responses to your support."
Which is not to say that those who find themselves on the more fortunate side of America's growing economic divide can forget that other Biblical admonition: "From whom much is given, from him that much more shall be expected."