2011 saw the beginnings of an economic recovery in the U.S., as the resurgence of the stock market and diminishing unemployment brought renewed optimism to brands and consumers alike. This growth also had a significant impact on the levels of charitable giving that were experienced during the year, with marketwatch.com stating an increase of 4.2% in 2010. The trend for increased giving was even more noticeable among wealthy individuals, and the 50 most prolific donors in the U.S. gave a total of $10.4 billion during 2011. So who were among this elite group and how did they choose where to invest their money?

SEE: Encouraging Good Habits With An Incentive Trust

William S. Dietrich II
Some of the more significant donations made during 2011 were posthumous, and the contribution of William S. Dietrich II was perhaps the most significant example of this practice. The renowned industrialist passed away in October of 2011, after which $500 million of his personal fortune was used to establish the Dietrich Foundation. With an emphasis on supporting local Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania nonprofits, the foundation was a result of long term financial planning, the substantial re-investment of funds and a strong commitment to philanthropy.

Among the first beneficiaries of the Dietrich Foundation were Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, which received large cash donations in the aftermath of Mr. Dietrich's death. The former benefited from a gift of $265 million, and this stands as one of the 10 largest donations ever made to a higher education body in the U.S. This was quickly followed by a further gift of $125 million to the University of Pittsburgh. With other various educational bodies also benefiting from Mr. Dietrich's wealth, the donor has made a significant contribution towards the future prosperity and continued growth of his local region.

SEE: Gifting Your Retirement Assets To Charity

George Soros
In terms of distributing wealth across both national and international nonprofits, billionaire George Soros stands as one of the most prolific donors. As the fourth largest giver in 2011, Soros invested a total of $335 million into his Open Society Foundations organization, which was established in 1993 to support the development of democratic institutions throughout Central and Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union. With a strong focus on challenging traditional economic theory and encouraging growth in disadvantaged communities, Soros used his financial knowledge and expertise to identify deserving causes throughout the world.

The single biggest donation made by the Open Society Foundations during 2011 was received by the Institute for Economic Thinking, which George Soros himself helped to start in 2009. Located in Hungary, his country of birth, the organization was developed to find new and innovative solutions to the global economic crisis and create more sustainable growth throughout the world. This focus on using wealth to meet economic challenges is also visible in the foundation's participation with local projects such as the Young Men's Initiative, which was founded by fellow philanthropist Michael Bloomberg and strives to help disadvantaged black and Latino young adult males in New York City.

SEE: Using Life Insurance To Make Charitable Donations

Sergey M. Brin and Anne E. Wojcicki
Google co-founder Sergey M. Brin and biotechnology analyst Anne E. Wojcicki donated a total of $61.9 million in 2011, which was invested entirely into the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. Although the amount given was less substantial than some of the other donations made during last year, its focus on such a prominent and misunderstood illness marks it as one of the most significant of recent times. Given that the couple have previously made a donation of $63 million to the same cause, they have made great strides is raising awareness about the disease and researching potential treatments and preventative measures.

While half of the donation made can be used at the foundation's discretion, the rest has been designated for specific research into the LRRK2 gene, which has been linked strongly with the onset and progression of Parkinson's disease. When you consider that more than 1 million U.S. citizens are living with the effects of Parkinson's and an estimated 60,000 new patients are diagnosed on an annual basis, this donation has huge social significance and will prove crucial in publicizing the disease and providing support for those unfortunate enough to be afflicted.

SEE: Cut Your Tax Bill With Donor-Advised Funds

The Bottom Line
The rise in charitable donations during 2011 reflected the improved economic environment, with individuals across a wide range of social demographics investing more in nonprofit ventures. Although it is unclear whether this level of growth or charitable giving can be sustained throughout 2012, the increasing emphasis on social and economic projects that seek to have an impact on regional communities is sure to inspire philanthropists nationwide.

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