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Bill and Melinda Gates, photographed at the Gates' offices in Kirkland, WA.
Bill and Melinda Gates, photographed at the Gates' offices in Kirkland, WA. / USA WEEKEND/Brian Smale

You can make a difference, too!

Here’s a cheat sheet of options to get you started:

Go online. VolunteerMatch.org or Serve.gov let you search by ZIP code for opportunities in your own backyard.


Shop. iGive.com donates up to 26% of your purchases at 900-plus stores to a favorite cause. Heifer International (heifer.org) lets you donate animal gifts such as sheep or chicks in someone’s name to families in need.


Text. Give on the go by texting a donation. Visit mobilegiving.org and select the “For Donors” tab to find the latest listing of “text to give” campaigns. Donations can be made in $5 to $10 increments.


Try this app. The mGiving app on Facebook (apps.facebook.com/mgiving) gives you the option of donating to a charity via your mobile phone.


Pick up the phone or take a walk. Call or visit your local United Way office for resources on additional difference-making opportunities in your own background. To find a local United Way near you, click here or call 211.


Check it out. When making donations, always remember check out a charity’s legitimacy before donating to them. Charity watchdog CharityNavigator.org is a great place to start.


Join. Volunteer with millions of others on USA WEEKEND’s Make A Difference Day, Saturday, Oct. 22. Find out more at makeadifferenceday.com.

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First, Bill Gates dedicated his life to revolutionizing technology. Then, the richest man in the world decided to give half his fortune away to improve education and combat poverty and disease.

Now, the Microsoft co-founder, along with his wife of 17 years, Melinda, are on a new mission: to encourage others, rich and otherwise, to pitch in, too.

On the wealthy end of the spectrum, Bill and buddy Warren Buffett have persuaded 69 other members of their billionaires club to also donate half their fortunes to philanthropic causes in an effort they call the Giving Pledge.

But the Gateses, whose Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gives away about $3 billion a year to U.S. and global causes, are setting their sights on a different demographic: the rest of us.

“The more you get engaged and the more you learn about giving back, the more you want to do,” says Melinda Gates, 46. “Take some small step to give something of yourself, and see where it leads you.”

It may sound like a tough sell, when so many American families are facing mounting bills and shrinking incomes. But Americans are a generous bunch: Estimates show individual donations were up 2.7% in 2010.

And it’s not just adults pitching in. Young people are beginning to make their mark, so much so that the United Nations has declared 2011 the International Year of Youth. The effort culminates this week with a three-day-long series of events at the U.N. in New York, literally giving young philanthropists a seat at the table.

With this increased focus on doing good among Americans young and old, we sat down recently with the couple in Bill Gates’ personal office in Kirkland, Wash., to find out what we can learn from arguably the world’s leading experts on the power and the purpose of the giving.

Why they do it

Before they persuade others to give, we wanted to know, what motivates them to help on such an astonishing scale?

Bill and Melinda had the same reply: their parents.

“I think the easiest way to develop strong beliefs is when you see your parents not only espousing those beliefs but acting on them,” says Bill, 55, whose father, William Sr., a retired lawyer in Seattle, is also a philanthropist, along with Bill’s schoolteacher mother, Mary. It was his parents’ commitment to the United Way and other charities and dinner-table discussions that set the tone.

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“Both of us grew up in families big on giving back,” Bill Gates says. Still, it wasn’t until later in life, after he had made his fortune, that he started large-scale giving.

“I really didn’t do anything of any significance until I was about 40,” he says, to which Melinda injects, “I think there was a little Microsoft era in there as well, as far as I remember!”

Melinda Gates, who was raised by a homemaker mother and engineer father in Dallas, says her family also emphasized service to others.

“That’s why some people find it hard to believe this came so naturally to us to give back,” she says. “But when you grew up in families like that, of course we’re going to. That’s where we come from.”

Let kids 'lead the charge'

In large part based on their own childhoods, the couple have made a conscious effort to get their three children, Jennifer, 15, Rory, 12, and Phoebe, 8, engaged in volunteerism. The kids have worked at a Seattle food bank with their parents, and the elder two accompanied the couple on a trip to Africa in 2006.

“They’re involved in things that they can relate to, so that they have the same sense of volunteerism that we grew up with,” Melinda Gates says.

The kids in turn inspire their parents. Phoebe “led the charge” for a Pennies for Peace collection when she was in kindergarten.

Doing much with less

Still, doesn’t it help to be rich to make a difference?

“No,” Melinda Gates says emphatically. “Giving back doesn’t even have to do with money, necessarily. It could also be your time or talent. I know lots of people who volunteer around Seattle and make a huge difference.”

Indeed, Bill Gates says, he is most inspired by those who have little but continue to help others. “Most giving is by people who aren’t rich, making their generosity amazing because they’re actually giving up a nice meal or vacation. Our degree of sacrifice is small. In some ways, they are the ones who are truly giving.”

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