I've heard it countless times: People say there's no point in saving for retirement or their other financial goals because they can only set aside $25 or $50 a month. They figure if they aren't some executive bigwig pulling down multimillion-dollar salaries, there's no hope they'll ever reach their dreams.

Of course, that's nonsense. Even those modest sums add up over time. The biggest obstacle is just getting started. 

Doing good, little by little
I hear the same sort of objections from everyday folks about giving money to charity. With so many billionaires in the country putting their resources to work for worthy causes, you may think you could never make a big difference for your community. Yet, in creating lasting change that has a positive, long-term effect on people, big money is far from the only thing charities need from you.

Still, it's staggering to see the fortunes some large charitable foundations have to deploy. Here's a look at the largest foundations in the country, along with their assets as of the most recent fiscal year for which their figures are available:


Corporate Affiliation of Founding Donor(s)

Total Assets

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT)

$38.9 billion

Ford Foundation

Ford (NYSE:F)

$13.8 billion

J. Paul Getty Trust

Getty Oil

$10.1 billion

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ)

$10.1 billion

William & Flora Hewlett Foundation

Hewlett Packard (NYSE:HPQ)

$9.3 billion

W.K. Kellogg Foundation

Kellogg (NYSE:K)

$8.4 billion

Lilly Endowment

Eli Lilly (NYSE:LLY)

$7.7 billion

David & Lucille Packard Foundation

Hewlett Packard

$6.6 billion

Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Bank of New York Mellon

$6.5 billion

Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation


$6.4 billion

Source: Foundation Center.

With these massive institutions doing so much work to foster worthy causes around the globe, you might think your $25 check to your local charity might be pretty much meaningless.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

Stretching a buck
Sure, big charitable foundations exist. But much more common are smaller organizations with much more modest budgets. Lacking ultra-wealthy philanthropists to provide essentially unlimited funding, these charities survive on relatively small donations from ordinary people.

Consider, for instance, the charities we've chosen this year for our 2008 Foolanthropy campaign. The Corporation for Enterprise Development had assets of just $14.6 million as of 2006. Donorschoose.org has about $13.8 million. The National Council on Economic Education has about $9 million in assets.

Yet each of these organizations has managed to put together important programs on a national scope:

  • CFED teaches at-risk youth the importance of managing their money, encouraging saving through matching programs that kids must use toward paying for college, buying a home, or starting their own business.
  • Donorschoose.org gives donors the chance to fund individual programs at the classroom level. You're able to see your donation work, as you'll get updates with photos of the actual classroom that your money helped fund.
  • The National Council on Economic Education trains educators around the country, reaching 150,000 teachers annually. Think about it: That's just $60 in assets for every person trained.

Act local
As impressive as it is to see national organizations work from modest beginnings, more locally focused groups tend to have even fewer resources. Junior Achievement of the National Capital Area, which helps DC youth, has just $1 million in assets -- yet its focus on impoverished students is an essential part of trying to solve the problems of crime and substance abuse that ravage the nation's capital.

To each of these charities, even the smallest donations help. So as you consider your year-end giving this year, don't get the idea that if you're not rich, your gifts aren't important. Even if the economy forces you to cut back, every bit you can afford to give will make a difference to the people striving to help people in need.

Foolanthropy 2008 is off and running! Learn more here:

Thanks for your support!

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has worked with charities small and large. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. Eli Lilly and Johnson & Johnson are Motley Fool Income Investor recommendations. Microsoft and Intel are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy gives you the gift of information.