Surpassing the billion-dollar mark in annual charitable donations, the philanthropic arm of Fidelity Investments gave away $1.17 billion last year, the largest amount in its history and a 24 percent increase over 2006.
The spike in donations marked the third consecutive year of record giving at the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund, which enables individual donors to set up accounts that function as their own personal foundations.
Fidelity attributed the growth in donations largely to a reduction in the minimum contribution required to set up a so-called giving account. Donors can now create an account with as little as $5,000, down from $10,000, and decide which nonprofit causes should receive their tax-deductible gifts. More than 6,700 giving accounts were created last year, up 44 percent from the pre vious year.
Robust giving was also due to strong market performance, new investment choices that helped fatten donor accounts, and new ways to support international causes, according to Fidelity. In addition, a redesigned website helped make online giving easier, resulting in another record: more than 72 percent of last year's donations were transacted online.
"On all fronts, 2007 was an exceptional year for the gift fund," said Sarah Libbey, interim president of the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund, the country's fourth-largest public charity, in a statement.
An abundance of philanthropic spirit also played a role in the fund's record year.
"People in general were very generous," said Fidelity spokeswoman Jennifer Engle. "We certainly can't take credit for the general generosity of the American public and their desire to support charities that are important to them."
In another change to the fund's giving process, Fidelity also lowered the minimum size of individual grants, to $100 from $250, enabling account holders to support higher numbers of nonprofits by spreading their money more widely. Last year, Fidelity donors made about 287,000 individual grants.
That change "came directly from feedback from donors," Engle said, "because our donors told us they wanted to make smaller grants to more charities."
Fidelity is "pleased" with 2007's record-setting donations, Engle added, "because it means more money is getting to charity."
In addition to cash donations, Fidelity's gift fund accepts appreciated securities such as stocks and mutual funds. Last year, such noncash assets accounted for 72 percent of all contributions to the fund - a substantial amount, but not as high as in 2000, a year of exceptionally high market performance when a record 79 percent of all gifts were appreciated securities.
The Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund, which holds more than $5 billion in assets, has disbursed more than $7.7 billion since its inception in 1991. Its donors - who cannot withdraw money or receive money back once they have made deposits into their giving accounts - gave away $950 million in 2006 and $846 million in 2005, making it the largest donor-advised fund in the country.
Fidelity takes a 0.6 percent fee to administer the accounts, an amount that decreases if individual account assets exceed $500,000.
Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at email@example.com.