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When a US$1,000 gift is better than US$1m

"Even if you have US$100,000 a year to give, it can feel like a drop in the bucket compared to what Bill Gates or Mike Bloomberg is giving. But that kind of money can have a big impact if you're giving to local food pantries or schools." - David Callahan, founder and editor of Insider Philanthropy.

IN the era of megaphilanthropy, small gifts can get overlooked or dismissed. But if done right, they can have just as great an impact as multimillion-dollar ones.

In Litchfield County, a Connecticut enclave known more for its wealthy summer residents than its struggling working class, local organisations are benefiting from bite-size largesse.

The Gathering Place in Torrington, Connecticut, helps the homeless in the north-western part of the state get showers, clean clothes and basic social services. But a few years ago, the organisation could not pay its rent or utilities and was on the verge of closing until it received a US$4,000 donation.

In another instance, a volunteer fire department in the same part of the state wanted to buy a device that detected gas leaks, but it did not have the money. It received US$1,000, enough to make the purchase.

These organisations and dozens of other small groups were funded by money raised by KentPresents, a highbrow ideas festival that draws intellectuals and their acolytes to the private Kent School for a summer weekend.

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The festival was established to draw interesting people to Kent, a quaint town in bucolic Litchfield County, but also to systemically make gifts of US$1,000 to US$10,000 to social service agencies.

Smaller, local gifts are part of a trend of philanthropists narrowing their focus so that they can feel that their donations matter, said David Callahan, founder and editor of the Insider Philanthropy website and the author of The Givers: Wealth, Power and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age.

"In this age of big philanthropy, when so many billionaires and foundations are active, donors at a more modest level can feel like their money might not count as much when directed to issues like climate change or global development," Mr Callahan said.

"Even if you have US$100,000 a year to give, it can feel like a drop in the bucket compared to what Bill Gates or Mike Bloomberg is giving," he added. "But that kind of money can have a big impact if you're giving to local food pantries or schools."

The vast majority of charitable gifts - some US$286 billion, out of US$410 billion given last year - come from individual donations, according to Giving USA, the annual report on philanthropy in the United States. Foundations, like the ones run by Mr Gates and Mr Bloomberg, account for US$67 billion of gifts made.

The KentPresents festival, in its fourth year this weekend, attracts Nobel laureates, secretaries of state, academics, artists and journalists discussing topics as varied as global affairs and visual arts.

The festival is the brainchild of Benjamin Rosen - a venture capitalist in the 1980s and 90s and former chairman of Compaq - and his wife, Donna. It was conceived as a way to give back to the area where they have made their life for the past 15 years.

On the face of it, the KentPresents model of philanthropy is not the most efficient. Mr Rosen said that producing the festival costs between US$400,000 and US$500,000, which comes from renting the school and audiovisual equipment and paying transportation costs for speakers, who waive their fees.

For the first two years, the festival ran at a loss, but the Rosens added money so that KentPresents could make US$100,000 in grants. Last year, the organisation gave US$125,000 to local charities. Julia Benedict, the executive director, said she expected to give the same amount or a little more this year.

Beyond the grants, Mrs Rosen said, she hoped that the festival raised awareness that behind the pastoral beauty of Kent and neighbouring towns was a need for social service support.

"We have a lot of local people who attend, and now they're aware of charities they didn't know existed," she added. "They are now aware of charitable giving that they can get involved in."

To make the grants, the Rosens set up a separate committee, called KentProvides, and said that they have no role in the decision-making. Kenneth Cooper, a part-time Kent resident and former chief financial officer of Republic National Bank, is the chairman of the committee, which is made up of local representatives from different towns.

"We wanted to try to reach out to the organisations that were financially precarious," Mr Cooper said. And this meant weeding out some of the slickest proposals, which generally came from the best-funded organisations.

"If you have an organisation doing incredible work and providing an incredible service, my opinion is, the most valuable thing we can give them is money for general operations," he said.

The biggest gifts - about US$10,000 - are too small for many big foundations to consider, but the money has helped the smaller groups around Litchfield County.

"The size of the grants would not look like much to big organisations, but these are all small organisations to whom a couple of thousand dollars is a good deal of money," said the Rev Jack Gilpin, the rector of St John's Episcopal Church in New Milford, Connecticut, and a grant committee member.

"These grants are not just to support supply and need but to show people they are worth something for who they are."

Small organisations could handle big gifts if they had the right guidance, said Beth Gazley, a professor who studies philanthropy at Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

"Any organisation with the right culture and commitment to planning and relationship to donors can handle a big gift," she said. "Big gifts definitely put pressure on organisations. But those things can be managed with good planning."

In Litchfield County, some of the challenges require just a little bit more of the same, said Leah Pullaro, the director of social services for the town of Kent and a grant committee member.

"The issues in the small towns are no different than the issues in the urban areas, but there's just less volume," she said. NYTIMES

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