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BOSTON (TheStreet) -- This past summer, Microsoft's (MSFT) - Get Microsoft Corporation ReportBill Gates and Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A) - Get Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Class A Report guru Warren Buffett began reaching out to other billionaires as part of a campaign to collect pledges that the super-rich would leave at least half of their amassed fortunes to charity.

Roughly 40 of their peers are taking part in the Giving Pledge, among them Oracle (ORCL) - Get Oracle Corporation Report founder Larry Ellison and Jedi master George Lucas. On the heels of the Great Recession and its lingering impact, the project -- which has already secured roughly $125 billion in pledges -- is welcome news for the nonprofits of the world. According to the Giving USA Foundation, charitable donations fell 3.6% last year, to $303.8 billion, down from $315 billion in 2008; it was the largest drop since 1974.

Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett speak to the media about their charitable efforts.

The question remains, however, whether those whose wealth is measured in thousands or millions, not billions, will follow their lead.

The Gates/Buffet plea may already be having an impact on people with high net worth, says Claire Costello, national foundation executive at Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAC) - Get Bank of America Corp Report .

She credits its role in the "mainstreaming of philanthropy," a shift embodied in the fact that mainstream media outlets -- including Town & Country, Barron's, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes and The New York Times -- all do occasional round-ups of charitable largesse.

"Everyone has at least one issue dedicated to giving, and it is much more commonplace," she says. "It used to be fairly isolated, in the Chronicle of Philanthropy or some of the more traditional trade publications, but now we are seeing it everywhere. I think what Gates has popularized is this notion of giving while living, as opposed to making it all about a bequest at the time of death. Folks are now putting philanthropy at the front end of the wealth structuring process. We are at the throes of the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth among the post-industrialized nations, and inevitably a lot of that is going to spill into the philanthropic sector."

Tuesday saw the release of the 2010 Bank of America Merrill Lynch Study of High Net Worth Philanthropy. Done in partnership with the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, the study culled responses of more than 800 households with an income of greater than $200,000 and/or a net worth of at least $1 million. The average wealth of respondents was more than $10 million, and half of all respondents had a net worth between $3 million and $20 million.

Findings in the biennial survey are mixed, though. Among the good:

  • High net worth households continued to support charitable organizations at levels consistent with those seen in 2005 and 2007, with 98% donating to charitable causes last year. These households also reported a continued strong commitment to supporting the same organizations or causes year after year (66%).
  • Volunteering remains a significant part of the philanthropic efforts of wealthy people. Nearly 79% of high net worth individuals volunteered last year, and the number who volunteered more than 200 hours a year rose significantly, to 39% from 27% in 2007 -- with some increase credited to restless retirees and laid-off workers building a resume or networking.
  • If the estate tax were repealed, 43% of wealthy households would "somewhat or dramatically increase the amount they leave to charity in an estate plan," compared to 36% in 2007.

And on the other hand:

  • Last year, 35% of households stopped giving to at least one organization and 27% stopped giving to at least two organizations they had supported. Giving as a percentage of income, however, remained relatively steady, with wealthy donors contributing just over 9% of their income to charitable causes last year, compared with approximately 11% in 2007.
  • Among the reasons households said they cut back on donations to a specific charity were: too-frequent solicitations or organizations asking for an inappropriate amount (59%); deciding to support other causes (34%); changes in household circumstances, including financial status, job status or relocation (29%); and the organization changing leadership or activities (29%).

Costello emphasizes that the hard number drop in donations is not all bad news. "Yes indeed, they may have been giving at lower levels, but they nonetheless maintained their support. They didn't walk away when economic times would indicate that they could or should. When you look at their giving levels as a percentage of income, that too dipped, but minimally," she adds. "It dipped from 11% to about 9.2.% of their income. I don't mean to minimize a 2% drop, because in real dollars that obviously is meaningful money. But when you look at other indices that track our recession -- whether it is unemployment or GDP or some of the stock exchange indices -- those falls were much more precipitous than those we are seeing in giving levels."

According to the study, more than 16% of wealthy households gave to vehicles such as private foundations, donor-advised funds and charitable trusts last year, and the average giving amount increased by 21%, to $75,867 from $62,680 in 2007.

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In a new area of research, the study examined risk tolerance for personal and philanthropic investments: 35% of wealthy households cited a willingness to tolerate above-average or substantial risk in their personal investments, but only 23% reported these high levels of risk tolerance when it comes to philanthropic investments. One quarter cited being completely risk averse with their philanthropic investments.

"These findings indicate that donors understand that their philanthropic assets are in fact not their own, but rather are to be used for the common good," Costello says. "In other words, we believe they take less risk with these assets than they do with their personal investments because they understand that their philanthropic capital ought to be invested with appropriate levels of risk given that it is intended for public benefit."

As for any trickle-down the Gates/Buffet initiative will have on those in lower tax brackets, the jury is still be out, although many in the nonprofit sector are hopeful its ongoing publicity will stoke charitable urges.

"If you take the entire pie of giving in the United States, roughly half to two-thirds of it is given by wealthy individuals," Costello says. "It is quite a big swath."

She says the annual report by the Giving USA Foundation found that roughly 70% of all Americans give to charity, compared with a 98% rate among high net worth individuals.

According to that survey, individual giving fell an estimated 0.4% last year, to $227.4 billion. Corporate giving, however, rose to an estimated $14.1 billion, up 5.5%, a bounce that moves it to within 1% of its prerecession level. According to reports by the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy and Community Foundation of Silicon Valley, corporations increased their in-kind donations, which are less affected by recessions.

-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.

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